a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Lauren Beukes, author
Where: Mullholland Books
When: Published June 2013
Why Read: South African author Lauren Beukes won South Africa’s most prestigious literary award, The University of Johannesburg Prize, for her time-traveling serial-killer thriller that aimed for Best Beach Read 2013.
In The Shining Girls, Harper Curtis, a drifter on the run in Depression-era Chicago, discovers a House (with the kind of capital letter significance over-utilized in Room; only here it signifies ominous – rather than cutesy – vagueness) that’s run-down on the outside, but beautifully maintained on the inside. Within the House is a room containing objects taken from murder victims – the girls who “shine.” Soon, the House, which has the power to shift through time from 1931-1993, compels Harper to claim a girl from each decade, leaving a trophy from one on the person of another – his time-traveling-killer calling card, so to speak.
Harper makes a mistake, though, and doesn’t finish his job from ’91. Kirby, who wears scarves to hide the scar that crosses her neck like a smile, is, as expected – both by her trauma and this type of predictable page-turner – damaged. A college student at the time, she becomes a loner in the form of a rebellious teen with a punk-ish sense of style and attitude (think: Jen Lindley meets Sarah Manning). In an effort to find closure – and the asshole who attacked her – she gets an internship at the local paper and enlists the help of Dan – just the weathered, mid-life-crisis riddled, alcoholic reporter you come to expect in these stories.
Beukes displays a lot of warmth and wit in her prose, as well as a mastery of decade-by-decade Chicago history. But her prose is all over the place (sometimes its unwieldiness confuses) and the plotting is way too vague: Who is Harper, exactly? How/why does the House have its time traveling power? What the hell does it mean to “shine” anyway? She conjures her shining girls with love and a level of detail they don’t quite deserve – they’re only with us for one chapter each, after all. All that time spent crafting the victims would’ve been better spent in fixing and filling in the plot. Then there’s the issue of Dan, who has a little “crush” on Kirby – who he could have fathered – who flirts with him shamelessly until she finally, gently rebuffs him. Can we please let die this tired, sexist trope of the older, mess of a man (semi)seducing the hot, broken, young woman? Please?
Ultimately, The Shining Girls wants to be Gillian Flynn’s [fill in the blank], but it’s more Girl on the Train, only less addictive. (Much like that latter novel, The Shining Girls would likely make a much juicier flick – though not from this director.) It boasts too many cliches and not enough specifics to make it your obsessive summer page-turner, but keep an eye on Beukes – her acerbic wit is what’ll make her shine.