In writing the The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes joins the likes of Michael Chabon in attempting to combine the Speculative Fiction (SF) genre with a novel that is otherwise overtly literary. Chabon did it most successfully with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in 2007. Beukes is much less successful in fusing the two in “The Shining Girls.” Although, she manages the spinning a brilliant sentence or description now and then, and does paint a better than average characterization of the dramatis personae, the SF element is mostly just window dressing. The story would succeed very well without time travelling element. In fact, the novel might have been even more effective as a straight ahead crime novel. However, it is still suitably creepy in itself to be good read.
Beukes is clearly not well schooled in the tropes of the time traveling speculative fiction novel. Although she is a strong writer with good control of her language, she tends to brush over the time traveling elements in favor of the more literary elements. Meanwhile the crime, and true-life horror essentials are interesting and nicely creepy, but the SF parts feel like an unneeded addition to an otherwise complete story.
The villain is named Harper, a Depression Era criminal and a nasty piece of work, who lurches into a mysterious house while hiding out from some gangsters. He quickly finds out the house is a time machine. By merely thinking of a date, he can leave the house and be in the thought of time period. On the walls of the house are several names of women and various objects from different eras, like a toy pony or a cigarette lighter. All of these things are connected by lines. In an odd epiphany and without a question Harper grasps that he must travel in time and murder each these women, called the “shining girls.”
So he turns into a time hopping serial killer. Harper calls on the women as girls, giving them an odd gift and swears to return to them later. A quick turn in the house and he is back to murder the girls, now grown to be adults. Harper is no clean assassin; he murders them cruelly, with the maximum of blood and pain. That is all except Kirby Mazrachi, who manages to survive Harper’s attack. She then begins to hunt the killer with her only ally, Dan Velasquez, who is a crime writer for a Chicago paper, where Kirby also works. The police are, of course, no help, since given the gaps in the time line of the killings they don’t think that the murders are related.
Things get rocky for the book at this point. Events appear to happen at random and the connection between Kirby and Harper is never explained. For that matter, why the “shining girls” must be killed and why Harper is the one to do it is also never really explained. Still, this is book is a good read and Beukes is a writer with great potential, but perhaps she should stick with straight novels and leave the Speculative Fiction in the hands of others.