There are three reasons I pushed through The Shining Girls to the end. First, I hate giving up on entertainments half way through. This is also why I stuck with American Horror Story: Freak Show despite it being a fetid pile of rancid bung beetles. Second, I09 was so effusive in their praise I felt like I wasn’t giving it a proper chance. Third, because Wikipedia does not have a complete synopsis. If I’m being honest Reason Third is the most important reason I stuck with it. I wasn’t enjoying it, but I also wasn’t hating it and I did want to know where it was going. After finishing it all I can say is “That’s it?”
The Shining Girls is a serial killer horror novel about a criminal scumbag named Harper who finds a house in 1931 to hide out in and quickly learns it is a time machine of sorts. By simply thinking of a date he is able to step out the front door to any time between 1929 and 1992. He uses this power to murder a series of women across this time frame that he calls Shining Girls. He first visits them as children, then again as adults when he brutally stabs, guts, and mutilates them. He’s a fun guy. The motivation for these killings come from a bedroom in the house that has several names written on the wall along with multiple totems from each of the women. Time doesn’t seem to exist in the house so the room with the names is presented to be always in flux with the past/present/future as one time so everything exists and is absent simultaneously. This sensation is jarring for Harper, he refers to it as a stutter in his brain, and drives him to kill the women on the wall: the Shining Girls. He is remarkably good at killing women (and men at times) and disappears in to another time after each one, leaving the killing unsolved. That is until he screws up and leaves Kirby alive and she starts trying to unravel the mystery of her attempted murder with the help of a Sun Times reporter.
The setup is intriguing but the execution really didn’t work for me. Lauren Beukes writing style is fine, but each 4-6 page chapter changes both perspectives and year making any momentum difficult to maintain. The gimmick of presenting this kind of story non-linearly wears out by the mid-way point when I just wanted to know what the hell was going on and wrap it up. We first meet Kirby as a young child, then again as an adolescent, then as a disaffected 20 something trying to solve her attempted murder, then a few years earlier when she is experiencing the attempted murder, and so on. It’s needlessly convoluted. Every few chapters there is a switch in perspective to one of the other Shining Girls which almost always ends with a violent murder. It’s repetitive and because we already know none of the other women survive the chapters are time wasters only meant to show off Harper’s sadism and the loss of another bright light. I understand that the symbolism here is Harper is murdering women who all seem to have futures that will further the rights and outlook of women in America, an avenging angel of men’s rights as I09 put it. That’s great, but in the context of the book the chapters were just sad and ugly and pointless. Combine them with the half of the book that is all about Harper and there were huge chunks of The Shining Girls I found myself reading as fast as possible to get over with.
Admittedly, the problem may be that I’m over these kind of books – and I’m really not in to the serial killer genre at all – so I’m probably not the audience for it. The Shining Girls is a dark and ugly novel that I never warmed up to. If like me you stick around just to see if there is an explanation to any of the carnage don’t bother. There is no reason for how the house can transport you through time, why Harper targets the women that he does, none of it. The story ends on a closed loop which is nifty but narratively unsatisfying. Some of you might scream “Spoiler!” but I considered it my public duty.