The Shining Girls

  • Lauren Beukes
  • Mulholland Books
  • 384 pp.

A woman pursues the serial killer who tried to end her life — a killer who can also travel through time.

The ‘70s were scarier than we thought. The child abductors and serial killers our parents feared weren’t just deranged men with a terrible sickness that manifested itself in horrible ways. They were time travelers, too, or at least one such man is in Lauren Beukes’ new novel The Shining Girls.

Serial killer Harper Curtis is on the lookout for girls who shine. He meets them when they are young and kills them when they are women. Although the girls experience time in the normal fashion, for Harper, the period in between might be a day or a week. The mysterious Chicago “House” he lives in doesn’t conform to time’s normal rules. Whenever Harper opens the front door, he is walking into a time when he knows he’ll find one of his shining girls. He might give them a trinket from the future or, if the evil House compels him, kill them when that future arrives.

Harper is a nasty character. Sometimes he kills people because he can and not because the House tells him to. Around Cabrini Green one day in 1988, Harper runs into Mal, a male drug addict hoping to steal money from Harper. For a tough guy, Mal is unexpectedly frightened by Harper’s manner.

Harper “… turns to him, all friendly, like he’s giving him the weather report. ‘Leave off, friend, or I’ll gut you here in the street.’ Not ghetto bluster. Matter of fact. Like tying your shoelaces. Mal stops dead and lets him go.”

That’s how Harper kills the shining girls — like it’s nothing at all. This book is not for the squeamish. The murder scenes are brutal and sad. The language can be vulgar. The victims come from a range of backgrounds and professions. They are dancers, students, artists, transvestites and activists. Most are young. Their ethnicities vary. Harper doesn’t care whether his victim is a war widow caring for her children or a woman dedicating her life to a noble cause. The House tells him to kill, and he does.

Kirby Mazrachi is one such shining girl. Harper leaves a trinket with her in 1974 and returns in 1989 to kill her. Unbeknownst to Harper, he fails, and Kirby survives. She is determined to identify her attacker. After the attempted murder, her hard life gets harder, and she becomes even more of an outsider.

“‘There’s this amazing thing I can do, which is condense clouds of silence around me. It’s like magic. I’ll walk through a conversation and it’ll just stop, dead. And resume again the moment I’m gone. In slightly different tones.’”

Despite the attempted murder, Kirby has the strength to move away from a life of drugs and self-harm. She puts herself through college and secures an internship at a newspaper where she hopes to learn more about serial killers. Dan, a middle-aged newspaperman and Kirby’s mentor, is on her side most of the time, and is one of this novel’s most believable characters. Dan is older, and he’s been married before. When Dan thinks about his divorce, he knows the hardest part “was not the despair and the betrayal and the horrific things they said to each other, but that splinter of unreasonable hope.”

The Shining Girls is an entertaining read, but the novel has its shortcomings. Kirby is hard to believe as a character. She grew up in difficult circumstances with an unknown father and a mother whose “default state of being is absent.” Despite these hardships, not to mention the attempted murder, Kirby seems to have emerged unscathed; she doesn’t even resent her mother. In that same vein, the author doesn’t explain why Harper is so evil. He arrives in the novel without a background that fits him into the House. If the House’s own background were ever explained, this might not be worth mentioning.

On balance, these issues are minor in a book that’s so easy to read and interesting. Beukes does a commendable job of showing Chicago and its people from the 1920s to the 1990s. Through Harper’s eyes, “[t]he future is not as loud as war, but it is relentless. It has a terrible fury all its own. The sheer density is unexpected.” A vein of humor runs through the novel, too, as when Kirby says of the Cook County jail: “The historic building hasn’t been afforded the same care and attention as the Field Museum or the Art Institute, although the prison has the same kind of rules for visitors. No eating, no touching.”

The Shining Girls is a well-paced horror novel that’s worth a read. You won’t look at Chicago or boarded-up houses the same way again.

Andrea M. Pawley lives and writes in Washington D.C., her favorite city in the whole world. 

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