To catch a killer

The Shining Girls ★★★
Lauren Beukes
Mulholland Books, 2013
Available June 4th



Book Description: A time traveling serial killer. He’s the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable–until one of his victims survives.

My review: This just might be the hype / ‘it’ book of the summer. Only time will tell. I can say that there’s a lot to love:

1) The main character Kirby is fantastic. She is a survivor (literally), independent, courageous and determined, a bit of a smart ass with a smart mouth. But she’s no mere Mary Sue, possessing vulnerabilities and flaws that make her uniquely “Kirby” and nobody else. I found her funny and totally sympathetic. Quite honestly, the entire novel pivots around her. Without her, the intricate house of cards the author builds would collapse in on itself at the slightest shift.

2) The villain Harper is a skeevy, creepy predator, a wholly horrific construct of misogyny and homicidal tendencies. There isn’t much depth or nuance to this guy — he’s just a walking talking body of hedonistic impulses and demented desires. We don’t get any personal history for him or why he should have become what he’s become. We know some of his twisted motivations derive from the magical qualities of “the House” — but not all of them. You could even argue that “the House” sees the evil in him and draws Harper to itself.

3) It’s about time travel in that tangly mind-fuck way that makes my brain itch, a pleasant buzz but one with bite. The mechanics of the time travel are not explained or explored in the ways they usually are in a sci-fi novel. The time travel just exists. There is a “House” that holds the magic and its door opens onto different years of the same city anywhere from the 1930s to the 1990s. It’s this “House” that allows for a time traveling serial killer, and for that unique premise alone the book deserves a second look.

What can I say? This book has a lot going for it, and I liked it, I liked it a lot. But not once did I free fall over the precipice in love with it. I was intrigued, I played along with the mystery of the time travel, fitting pieces together where I could and trying not to get too caught up in the logic, faulty or otherwise. While Kirby stood out bright as the sun as one of “the Shining Girls”, the rest of Harper’s victims feel underdeveloped by comparison, almost throwaways, mere plot devices. It was hard not to get them mixed up with each other.

I also felt a tad underwhelmed by Kirby’s “hunt” of her attempted killer. The uncovering and following of clues felt clunky, a cobbled together hodge-podge process where results are based more on luck and coincidence than real groundwork and actual “hunting”.

This is largely a plot driven piece and if puzzles and the snake eating its own tail nature of time travel appeals to you then definitely check this out. As I was reading it, I was struck by its cinematic qualities, and won’t be surprised if The Shining Girls gets optioned for the big screen.

There are several cover versions available for this one, and since I suffer from a raging case of cover lust I’ve included them here. The first is the Harper UK edition and the second (my favorite), the Umuzi (Random House) trade paperback.

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