Author: Lauren Beukes
Rating: 2 stars
Cover Comments: Fairly standard, though I do like the graphics on the word “shining”.
Discovering a key that allows him into a house that travels through time could be the escape from a bleak life during the Great Depression that Harper Curtis needs. But Harper finds himself drawn to darker, more twisted desires. As he journeys between the 1920s and the 1990s, Harper searches for his shining girls; brilliant girls who practically burn with potential. He hunts these girls out, gives them a gift and a promise they will meet again.
It’ll be the last meeting they ever have.
Harper crosses through the years, taking these shining girls spark away from them, one after another, until one girl somehow manages to survive. Kirby will never be the same again after the gruesome attack that nearly killed her. Scarred both physically and mentally, she is determined to hunt down her unknown assailant and bring him to justice. After hunting through news articles and chasing down possible leads, Kirby begins to suspect that these murders seem to be spanning over seventy years. But how can that be possible? And can she stop him before he kills again?
This novel sounds like a fascinating mix of sci-fi and thriller, full of tension, death, and the twisted psychological workings of a serial killer. Sadly though, The Shining Girls fails to live up to this great premise. Ultimately, the house that allows Harper to time travel is little more than a gimmick that is never fully explained. It just is. In fact, “it just is” seems to be the explanation for most of the novel. Why is Harper a killer? He just is. Why does he choose these “shining” girls? He just does. How does the House work? It just does. I could go on. Once the time travel theme is used, all that is left is a standard thriller, with nothing particularly amazing to make the novel worth much interest. This includes very poor “investigative” skills on part of the mine character Kirby, who seems to get lucky with her search more than anything else which proves to be very annoying.
There are several major questions left unanswered about the serial killer. Harper is not a character: he is a plot device. He has no history, no depth, and nothing interesting other than his narrated action, which only serve to tell the story. This novel could have been a fascinating study of motives and the inner workings of a serial killer. Instead we simply get a blow by blow account of his actions, which reads as dryly during a murder scene as it does during his daily routine. We are told what he does, but not why he does it. There is no real explanation as to how or why Harper chooses his victims. What exactly is it that makes them shine? This leads to another problem: the unquestioned sexism that rises from the stereotypical portray of a male serial killer who only ever attacks women (who are frequently referred to as “girls” in a very patronising tone). Issues have been raised by other reviews about the gendered violence against women (The Book Smugglers have a great review which looks at this), which is used in a graphic and often sexualised way. As well as this, there is also the issue of the serial killer being a man. Though there have been many male serial killers who target women, the problem The Shining Girls has is that it is treated as the norm, never challenged and only ever mentioned once in the text: “Always a ‘him’, these perpetrators of terrible violence upon women. As if women were incapable of evil.” This idea is is then dropped completely from the novel. Even a brief description at what drove Harper to murder would have helped these issues, but sadly there wasn’t one to be found.
With these problems, and others (unnecessary gore and sex, the use of the murder victims as devices to show how disturbed Harper is, and a slightly creepy romantic angle between Kirby and a journalist who acts more like a father figure) I’m afraid this book simply didn’t shine for me. For more of these issues in greater detail see Wendy Darling’s brilliant review.