The Shining Girls

shining girlsThe Short Version: In 1931, Harper Curtis discovers a mysterious house that allows him to travel through time – in order to kill these very specific girls, whose spirits “shine” with potential.  In 1989, Kirby Mazrachi is nearly murdered by an unknown assailant – key word nearly.  As she tries to track down her killer a few years later, she stumbles onto an impossible mystery: a serial killer who seems to travel through time…

The Review: Stephen King should be proud.  It’s impossible not to read this book without thinking of the master, of course – right down to the title and the “shine” of the girls in question.  Oh, it’s different from the shine of Danny Torrence – but it’s hard not to see the similarities.  Then there’s a strange house that allows the occupant to travel through time, not unlike the doorway in 11/22/63.  Finally, there’s a Dark Tower-esque twist to the whole thing that I don’t want to give away but that, as I closed the book, made me grin and nod vehemently in satisfaction.

But let’s leave Uncle Stevie to one side, shall we?  For this book, as indebted as it might be (intentionally or otherwise), deserves to be discussed on its own merits.  It’s a bold and audacious novel, one that doesn’t always quite succeed but that feels damned worth your time simply for having tried.

The conceit is a great new twist: a time-traveling serial killer, who should be for all intents and purposes untraceable.  The MO might be the same but it’s impossible to logically consider the idea that the same person might’ve killed someone in 1931 and in 1993.  Watching our heroes try to put this all together is great fun – they struggle with it, as well they should, but there’s a level of doggedness (ah, classic journalism tropes!) that makes it feel earned when they get there and realize that, wow, the world is quite different from what they thought it was…

Speaking of: the characters.  I must admit, they feel pretty stock – not that that’s a bad thing.  Kirby is plucky and feisty, Dan is rough around the edges but with a heart of gold… The one character who I feel like we get short-shrifted on is Harper.   Beukes gives us plenty of time with him – the alternating chapters allow us into the heads of our main characters as well as several of Harper’s other victims and even a few secondary characters who flit around the outskirts of this story – but I never quite understood him.  He’s down on his luck when we meet him and he’s quite understandably come a bit unhinged by the very fact of having to face this new reality of The House… but I felt like the moments of trying to show that he was a sociopath even from a young age end up feeling forced or rote, signposting the developments instead of just watching them grow.

Similarly, I feel like the novel gets a little lost inside itself.  For one thing, it’s difficult at times to keep track not of the present-tense (the dates of each chapter are kindly included) but rather of what has and hasn’t happened yet.  Time being so fluid in this novel, there are things that happen over and over but in different orders.  Indeed, the best trick of the whole novel, a sort of “all of this has happened before and all of it will happen again” moment at the end, makes the very loosey-goosey timeline feel totally worthwhile.  But there were also moments that felt… like they didn’t quite fit or weren’t entirely necessary.  We see Harper kill most of his victims (or at least stalk them) but there’s no real sense of the how and why: it’s all so much flashes.  Then, as the novel barrels towards its conclusion, I sort of wondered why it all crashed to a rather convenient ending.  The story felt like it was going to push Kirby further into the House and an understanding of it… but instead, things just sort of get neatly tied up in the last 50 pages in a way that doesn’t feel entirely earned.

This all having been said, this is a rip-roaring page turner.  The prose stays lean and tight, the chapters short and snappy.  If you don’t entirely come up with an understanding of what happened, that’s entirely okay – you’ll certainly understand the plot itself, just not quite the mechanics of it.  It might be the sort of book that would benefit from a re-read, just to see now where all the pieces fit.  But it might also lose some of the propulsion: I spent a long chunk of the novel just trying to put it all together in my head and that, I feel, was part of the allure.  There’s a puzzle here and while the outcome isn’t quite what you hope for, the puzzle itself is fun to play with.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  It’s a nice to see some highbrow genre like this, you know?  It’s sci-fi and mystery and it makes you think – but doesn’t get bogged down in the thinking.  There are some horrifically violent moments and while a lot of things feel familiar about the novel, there’s nothing really negative to be said about it.  It’s a fun, smart, pulpy novel – and it reads fast, too.


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