The Shining Girls

The Shining by Lauren Beukes(Umuzi)

The girl who wouldn’t die. Hunting a killer who shouldn’t exist.

Chicago 1931. Violent drifter Harper Curtis stumbles upon a house that hides a secret as shocking as his own twisted nature: it opens onto other times.

Harper uses it to stalk his ‘shining girls’ across decades – and cut the fire out of them. He’s the perfect killer. Unstoppable.

Untraceable. Until one of his victims survives and turns the hunt around.

Chicago, 1992. Kirby Mazrachi’s determination to find the man who tried to kill her has taken over her life. The cops no longer return her calls.

Her mother copes by writing morbid children’s books. Her only ally is Dan, the burnt-out ex-homicide reporter who covered her case. As Kirby closes in on her would-be killer, what she finds is ... impossible. Murders scattered across the decades along with evidence that makes no sense. Meanwhile, Harper is closing in on her too

It’s not often that I come across a book that I just can’t put down,  and as clichéd as it might sound, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is one of those novels that demands to be read in one sitting.

It’s a fantastically creepy story with a compelling narrative that binds you as the story unfolds in twist and turns that mess with your mind and leaves you slightly baffled, craving to make sense of what’s happening and revelling in elation as, by the end, everything just slots into place.

Set in Chicago the story is told from the perspectives of different characters. You get to experience the world through the eyes of the serial killer, Harper Curtis, through his victims as he visits them in childhood and returns years later to take their life and finally from the perspective of the lone survivor, Kirby, as she tries to bring him to justice.

Told in a nonlinear way the jumps through time can be jarring at first, but as you become more familiar with the mechanics at work it soon becomes a natural extension of the story. Beukes deftly handles these time shifts and manages to capture the essence of each time period, incorporating some historic titbits that really brings the world to life and adds authenticity.

I loved the character of Kirby. She comes across as an outsider, set apart by the horrendous ordeal she suffered at the hands of Harper and the scars, both emotional and physical, he inflicted on her. Even as a little girl she has this stoic bravery which carries through to her adulthood.

"Kirby throws back the sheet. 'I'm going to go see, okay?' she tells the pony, because the thought of waiting for the monster to come to her is unbearable." (p 17)

Instead of being broken by the horrible experience she emerges stronger devoting her life to pursuing her attacker even when everyone else has given up hope of ever finding him.

Through sheer determination she uncovers the shocking truth that might finally give her the closure she so desperately needs.

As much as I liked Kirby I must admit that Harper Curtis completely steals the show. He is a chilling psychopath who kills without remorse and enjoys every moment of agony he inflicts on his victims.

Then he sets the lighter against her eye socket and digs the hard edge in against her broken cheekbone. Black spots bloom in her head, pain arching through her jaw, down her spine.

He pulls up her T-Shirt, exposing her skin, winter-pale. He drags his hand across her stomach, his fingertips digging into her skin, clutching, greedy, leaving bruises. Then he punches the knife into her abdominal wall and twists and pulls it across in a jagged cut, following the trajectory of his hand. She bucks up against him, screaming into the ball.

He laughs. ‘ Easy there.’
(p 132)

It’s eerie how well Beukes manages to portray the mind of a serial killer, how he escalates in violence and how his killing ritual develops. You almost feel tainted each time you experience things from his perspective – a sure sign of brilliantly engaging writing.

The ending is worthy of anything Stephen King can come up with. It’s satisfying, gives closure but also brings things full circle in the most unexpected way.

Throughout the story you are never spoon-fed any answers. How did the time travelling work? What made the girls shine? You are left to draw your own conclusions and I found myself haunted by the implications for days afterward.

The Shining Girls is difficult to shove into any specific genre box. It’s a brilliant mix between thriller and horror with a dash of time travel thrown in. It’s a fantastically creepy, mind-bending read that grabs you and just doesn’t let go until the very last page.

Even then the story will haunt you for days afterward. Lauren Beukes is at the top of her game; even if you didn’t like any of her previous work this is most definitely worth the effort. Highly recommended!

Read more on KJ’s blog.

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