In 1989, a university student and aspiring journalist named Kirby Mazrachi is horribly attacked and mutilated by a would-be killer while walking her dog on the beach of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Her attacker seemingly disappears into nothingness, and by 1992 Kirby finds herself slowly becoming obsessed with tracking him, using the resources available to her via an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times, and her friendship with a retired crime reporter named Dan Velasquez.
Meanwhile, in 1931, a drifter named Harper Curtis has arrived in Chicago, taking up residence in a mysterious House, which is supplied with seemingly infinite food, drink and money. It’s a hobo’s dream! But, as it turns out this House has called the psychopathic Harper into its service, and sends him spiralling through time with a dark purpose: to seek out and kill “shining girls”, women throughout the history of Chicago who are incrementally making life better for all around them, especially other women. Harper collects totems from these women after each attack, items requested by the House, and further messes with the timestream by leaving artifacts from the wrong historical era at each crime scene. The intentions of the House are unknowable, unfathomable, but once it becomes clear that Kirby survived her encounter with Harper, the stage is set for killer and would-be victim to settle the score once and for all.
I’ll give it this much, the book has a killer tagline: “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die Hunts The Killer Who Shouldn’t Exist.” Unfortunately, this book completely fell apart for me, with the undoubtedly intriguing premise unraveling almost before my eyes.
First, the good parts. Beukes has undoubtedly done her research on Chicago, and the book provides the reader a wealth of information on the city’s history, architecture, and sports teams. This is especially evident in scenes focusing on Kirby and Dan working together on sports stories at the newspaper, as they hang out in locker rooms and the press box at Wrigley, the office bullpen, and the paper’s archives. These scenes feel very lived-in, and give the reader a great sense of the newspaper world. The author also demonstrates her skills very effectively when it comes to the quick character sketches of the “shining girls”, and we really feel invested in them even before they come into contact with the murderous Harper (great name for a villain by the way </politics>). Speaking of the book’s antagonist, I really enjoyed how much damage was inflicted on his body throughout the book. There is a visceral thrill to seeing how this absolute monster gets the shit kicked out of him on his jaunts through time.
Now for the bad parts. Ultimately, I don’t think this book lives up to its high-concept premise. The problem, for me anyway, stems from the House. There is a fine line Beukes is walking here, as the motivations of the place probably shouldn’t be too clear to the reader, or, for that matter, its catspaw Harper Curtis. Snuffing out the lives of these promising women throughout history should be enough for the reader to want to see Harper taken down, but when I stopped to think about it, I really had no idea why any of the plot was happening.
In laying out the book’s Manichaean cosmology, Beukes is committed to resolving every paradox that the time travel shenanigans brings about, and in doing so she doesn’t really show us what kind of impact the Shining Girls have on the world, or what they would do without Harper’s involvement. There is of course the impact their deaths have on their friends and families, but it’s never clear what the House “wants” apart from that.
SPOILER WARNING FOR THE FOLLOWING SECTION (HIGHLIGHT TO SEE)
Harper, in his psychopathic desire to inflict as much pain as possible, even stops one of the girls from shining altogether, essentially scaring her enough as a young child that she develops mental problems, drug addiction, and family trauma. If the House allows him to do this, what is the point of his mission, then? Couldn’t he just go around preemptively stopping girls from ever achieving their destinies, kind of like an evil version of Scott Bakula’s character from Quantum Leap? We aren’t really given evidence either way.
SPOILER WARNING ENDS
So while the attention to detail is there, and the violence is well-realized, ultimately the basic premise of the book didn’t work for me. It reminded me of the movie Looper, which was so focused on making sure the internal mythology of time travel made sense that it neglected to have much in the way of a story. The writing style also seems halfway between contemplative literary fiction and a Dean Koontz-esque thriller, and this also began to wear on me after a while. Come to think of it, the story does remind me of a darker version of one of the two Dean Koontz novels I’ve ever read, Lightning.
The Shining Girls is slated to become a TV show soon, and I think this format might work a little better for it than the novel.