Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Where I Received the Title: Audible.com
In anticipation of The Shining Girls, I picked up Lauren Beukes’s novel Zoo City earlier this year (review here). Where her previous novel was more niche — filled with fantasy in a South African urban setting, The Shining Girls is more mainstream. The location has moved to Chicago and the fantastical elements are limited to time travel, which has become a common trope in mainstream literature (The Time Travelers Wife, Outlander). Before its release, the novel garnered attention, first with an auction for publishing rights and a TV deal to boot.
What I like about Beukes’s writing is her keen sense of voice. She has a hip, cultural flavor in her writing and is able to shift both her language and prose to suit the various characters. The Shining Girls is her most ambitious novel, taking on several viewpoint characters and weaving them in an intricate non-linear timeline.
The novel is primarily focused on two characters: Kirby, a survivor of an attack from a brutal serial killer, who decides to bring her attacker to justice, even if it is at the chagrin of the law enforcement agencies. The killer is a man named Harper, who primarily resides in the 1930’s, but travels into the future to commit his crimes. There are other viewpoint characters as well. Kirby’s mentor, Dan, plays the traditional relationship character and the shining girls — young women filled with potential, are expressed not just as cardboard victims, but living, breathing characters. Unlike serial killer novels like Silence of the Lambs, Lauren Beukes does not romanticize the mind of a sociopath. Harper is no evil genius. He is a pathetic, ruthless maniac who unfortunately is successful in his pursuits.
But Harper’s killings don’t come without a cost. The novel does not spare violence and the shining girls do not go down without kicking or screaming. Harper suffers many injuries from his attacks, which provides a little consolation to the reader.
I listened to the audiobook version of the novel, which was put together very well, with different voice actors for each viewpoint character. I don’t recommend this format; however, since the novel does tend to jump around a lot from the thirties to the nineties.
As far as the art work, I want to make note of the Umuzi (South African Imprint of Random House) paperback version of the cover. Lauren Beukes provided several pictures of the windy city to artist, Joey Hi-Fi for inspiration. He, in turn, used this inspiration quite literally. I like the panel-style layout, particularly with the one pink-framed window that stands out among its sepia-tinted counterparts. I imagine Harper staring up at that window, staring at the silhouette of a shining girl through the reflective glass. The lettered photographs of the title are also a nice touch.
So what was my general consensus on the novel? It was a great read, but a little gruesome at times. Kirby was a very well-rounded character, but her victimhood was almost transparent. Even though she was traumatized, I did not get the sense of her being damaged in any respect — just motivated to seek justice. She was ambitious, resourceful, and exhibited real emotions.
The Shining Girls is deserving of the popularity it has gained and I do think it would make for an interesting TV series. It was quite different from her previous novel, but her voice still shined through. This novel may appeal to genre fans, but it is certainly written for a broader audience. While time travel is a device, characters take center stage. And in the end, you will love and hate and be glad you read the novel.