This is one of those books that I read simply because of the author; reading about a serial killer is not a natural draw. I’ve heard countless praise regarding Ms. Beukes writing and became more acquainted with her through interviews she’s given. So I found myself with The Shining Girls; its characters are memorable with a tightly paced story-line, brilliant settings and deftly applied phrasing and dialog. As a writer, Ms. Beukes does not disappoint. Despite this, or rather because of this, it was a difficult book for me to read. I had to take the story in doses. Part of her goal is to show us the ugliness of violence against women; she succeeds. This story is about the strength of a women (Kirby) whom a time-traveling serial killer (Harper) attempts to kill, fails and comes back to finish. Kirby is befriended by Dan, a jaded newspaper man covering sports because he burned out covering the crime scene. Pretty early on, I want to see Harper hung, drawn and quartered; this is not a pleasant or quick way to die. So, clearly I was engaged. (By the way, don’t listen to the audiobook in the car, in case you’re like me and become really mad during some of the attacks.) Let me say upfront, she does not glorify violence (quite the opposite) nor does she wallow in it. It’s appropriate for her tasks which is enough to feel connected to the victims and hate their loss and Harper’s sickness.
Ms. Beukes not only does a great job story-telling but she cleverly manages the intricacies of time-travel with panache . It’s hard to describe without spoilers but let’s just say she manages to keep from stumbling over herself, provide some clues along the way and even allows the villain to fumble along the way. As you can imagine, this would make him notoriously difficult to track down. It is a clever mechanism that’s well executed.
The settings are brilliant and well-researched; I say settings because they are different aspects of Chicago in different decades. What doesn’t differ, alas, is the slice of life as it’s seen by Harper and, to a lesser degree, as experienced by Kirby. These are not lives to which we would readily be tied. Harper lives amongst ugliness in terms of environs and characters. Kirby lives a haunted life so overwhelmed with the attack on her that it, understandably, becomes an obsession. So part of the challenge of the story is that you’re surrounded by lives and characters that, at best are unpleasant and, at worst, are hideous. The utter depravity and sickness of Harper are palpable; evil is difficult to read precisely because it should not, itself, be shiny. There is also the creepy house; it is a separate character in the book. These folks inhabit a Hobbesian world where people live in “… continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” We inhabit that world when we dive into the book. Life is hard enough without taking on the pain of Kirby’s world. So there’s a part of me that says this was good to read. I need to feel this so that I can be more aware and more supportive of change. Nonetheless, it’s not enjoyable to vicariously live through the story. While it’s important to try things you haven’t always preferred (for example, I’ve recently come to appreciate contemporary orchestral music), I’m not reading anything like this again soon. Ms. Beukes joins the illustorious company of Stephen King and other good writers who write in genres such as Horror which I avoid.
As I often do, I went back and forth between the Kindle and the Audible version. The audio book was a well cast with special kudos to Ms. Hvam as Kirby and Mr. Snyder as Dan. I think they handled the drama without over dramatizing and the pacing and hand-offs between dialog went well. If you enjoy audiobooks (and serial killer thrillers) you’ll like this recording.
So, would I recommend this book? Yes, if the person is going in with eyes wide open to the difficulty of the material. It often seems that the nicest people write the darkest stuff; here’s hoping that Ms. Beukes remains the lovely person she seems to be and yet writes a lighter book.