With The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes joins the increasingly crowded list of authors attempting to bridge genre writing with the literary novel. She manages to be more successful than most, turning the occasional brilliant phrase or description, and exercising above average characterization with her protagonists. This lit-thriller’s sci-fi twist is mostly satisfying, and the story succeeds in being just creepy enough to keep the reader hooked, but it doesn’t quite elevate itself to something more memorable than a beach read.
These genre-blending novels face a tough conundrum. Over-explain the uniqueness of the setting or rely too heavily on tropes and readers are left bored or feeling their intelligence insulted; under-develop the premise and rely on the more literary writing and the uniqueness of setting begins to feel arbitrary and unnecessary. There’s a fine line between the two that most authors aim for, even if they miss the mark.
Beukes errs on the side of the latter scenario: her writing is strong, and the sci-fi time travel stuff is interesting and creepy, but not fully developed. These genre elements are rendered and used to good effect, but unfortunately feel as if they exist only to serve the plot.
The villain is a man named Harper, a Chicago degenerate from the Depression Era who stumbles into a mysterious house while escaping some gangsters. He soon discovers the house is a time machine of sorts. By thinking of a certain date, he can exit the house to that time period. On the walls are numerous female names as well as various artifacts from different time periods (a lighter, a toy pony) connected by lines, like constellations. Almost instinctually and without questioning why, Harper realizes he must travel around time and murder these “shining girls.”
So Harper becomes a time traveling serial killer. He visits the women as young girls, giving them anachronistic gifts and promising to return later in life. A quick return to the house and back, and Harper then dispatches the women as adults. Except Kirby. Harper comes back for her too, but she manages to survive.
An intern at the Sun-Times, Kirby and her supervisor/sorta-love-interest Dan Velasquez set out to track down Harper and connect him to the serial killings that the cops (with good reason, given the gaps in time) believe to be unrelated.
This is where things wobble a bit. The book never falls apart on Beukes, but there’s too much randomness (or at least unexplained causality) in Kirby’s connection to Harper. Not only are we never given a reason for why Kirby and the other shining girls are being killed, we also aren’t offered much to base any supposition on. And while Beukes does manage to “close the loop” with the time travel plotting, she doesn’t take the opportunity to fold the victims into that plotting as anything more than just seemingly random targets.
Still, this is an exciting read, and on the whole a successful novel. It’s not the poster child for successful literary/thriller mashups, but it is ahead of the pack in that regard. The Shining Girls will make for a fantastic beach read to help you while away the summer.