I picked this up on a whim because Lauren had mentioned it in passing and it sounded interesting, which is generally all it takes for me to read a book tbh.
I don’t really read a lot of crime fiction because I find it difficult to get into but The Shining Girls offered an intriguing premise that set the book apart from the genre. I have to say though that the book doesn’t really live up to expectations, and after reading the author interview at the back of my copy I don’t really think the book achieves what Beukes wanted it to either.
So the premise of The Shining Girls adds on a supernatural twist to an otherwise kind of flat murder mystery. Our murderer, who in the novel is pretty much a main character, finds himself a House that opens to different times. Taking full advantage of time travel, said serial killer jaunts back and forth across time to meet his victims as children, taking an item that belongs to them and leaving them with a promise that he’ll see them again, and then meeting them as adults to kill them brutally. Harper, our killer, becomes obsessed with girls who ‘shine’ with life; by killing them he claims their ‘light’ for himself. I think? I don’t know, this is where I feel the novel unravels a bit – the House is never explained, so it just feels like a plot device. I would have liked more insight into Harper’s preoccupation with The Shining Girls because it never feels developed enough. I mean, if your novel is going to have the POV of the killer, then he should be more than just a generic villain designed to horrify.
The novel juggles a number of different points of view, ranging from a cynical journalist to various victims of the killer, as well as the murderer himself. Along with Harper, the serial killer who stalks his victims through time, we’re introduced to Kirby, the one ‘shining girl’ who survives Harper’s vicious attack. I loved her. I loved that we got to see her as a child creating circuses instead of tea parties and I loved her years later when she emerges as a survivor, determined to find her attacker. What Beukes does with Kirby, I think, is quite interesting – you have this girl, young and traumatised from a brutal attack, who understandably wants justice for what was done to her but as Kirby gets closer to the truth, the story never goes out of its way to make her seem more sympathetic. She is a difficult girl with often limited social skills – there is a scene where Kirby finds the mother of another of the killer’s victims, and rather than a quiet, sensitive talk with the woman, Kirby corners her in a grocery shop and proceeds to shout at her about the details of the case. For me, this actually really works – Kirby is angry, she’s scared and most of all she knows she’s alone. As a portrayal of a surviving victim, Beukes shows some of her best writing with Kirby.
The POVs from each murder victim I’m not really sure what to think of. In a way I appreciate that Beukes gives a voice to these girls who are murdered, and each of these girls differ greatly. There are POCs, a lesbian, mothers, daughters – Beukes really tries to represent women across the board. The fact that every single one of these women are victims, though…it makes me uncomfortable. They get a single chapter that ends in their deaths whereas the killer can easily be considered a protagonist along with Kirby. In a lot of ways this book reminded me of The Lovely Bones. I don’t mean this as a compliment – The Lovely Bones is told from the perspective of a victim; the killer has a POV but while he is fascinating while being abhorrent, he never overshadows the main story. The Shining Girls doesn’t manage this balance nearly as well – I feel like it really tries to be a book about the triumph and tragedy of women but it doesn’t work because you have this narrative of a male killer that is always at the forefront of the story.
This is intensified with the brutality of the killings – Beukes says in the interview at the back of the book that she wanted to dissociate her victims with the culture of glamorising the female murder victim. So instead they’re killed horrifically with their corpses being described in macabre detail. I just don’t really get it? It doesn’t achieve what she wanted it to because you still have Harper sexualising each of his victims; remembering how he killed them is enough to make him masturbate. And this happens multiple times.
And for a book that is supposed to be sympathetic to women, there is just way too much of the word ‘cunt’ being thrown around.
I do think this novel has some merits, and it has a lot of potential but ultimately doesn’t really deliver. It’s a book that so badly wants to be great but sadly for me ended up being merely okay. I will be giving it to Amber so that she can read it and tell me what she thinks, though :’)