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The Shining Girls

The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes A monster that sucks people's brains out their heads is far less disturbing than a serial killer that stalks and kills girls for no reason. An “equal opportunity” serial killer that kills men as well as women is also less disturbing. I don’t know much about real life serial killers but for some reason their fictional counterparts almost always go after young girls. There is a layer of unreality in the brain sucking monster scenario that makes it not at all disturbing regardless of how graphic the description is, a psycho stalker on the other hand hits a little too close to home for comfort.

The basic plot is very simple though it leads to a fairly complex storyline. In the words of the author:

“Harper, a time-travelling serial killer is untraceable, unstoppable until one of his victims, Kirby, survives and turns the hunt around.”

To my mind The Shining Girls is not science fiction, the mechanics of the time traveling aspect is not explored at all. It is basically just a magic portal in a house. This is fine as it leaves the author free to focus on the ramifications of time travelling on the characters’ lives. The chapters are arranged in a non-linear timeline, helpfully signposted by the year number at the beginning of each chapter. For once the non-linear timeline makes complete sense. Even though it zigzags and is quite twisty Lauren Beukes quite cleverly organized it in such a way that it is easy to follow and also make the narrative very compelling, the timeline is even sequential in narrative terms. However, I was looking forward to some old school “timey wimey” paradoxes like the classic [b:The Man Who Folded Himself|624122|The Man Who Folded Himself|David Gerrold|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344701884s/624122.jpg|610483] or Heinlein’s short story [b:All You Zombies|13030110|All You Zombies|Robert A. Heinlein|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1338513108s/13030110.jpg|18193411] (nothing to do with shambling walking deads). This did not happen in The Shining Girls as Beukes opted for a predeterministic model of time traveling where the future is set in stone and there can be no “Butterfly Effect” (see [b:A Sound of Thunder|17568373|A Sound of Thunder|Ray Bradbury|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1362899528s/17568373.jpg|24505570]). Her notion of time travelling is closer to the model used in Audrey Niffenegger's wonderful [b:The Time Traveler's Wife|18619684|The Time Traveler's Wife|Audrey Niffenegger|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1380660571s/18619684.jpg|2153746]. Nevertheless Beukes did a great job of ensuring that the jumbled up timeline does not collapse from some logical error. Here is a chart that explains how time travel works in The Shining Girls.

In spite of the very compelling narrative where not a single page of the book is boring I do have one main reservation about this book. In several chapters Lauren Beukes introduce us to strong, smart, likeable, talented women only to kill them off at the end of the chapter. Ms. Beukes has a talent for creating vivid and believable characters so it is a little sad and disturbing to see them killed off so senselessly to satisfy a psycho’s craving. Worse still, the same process occurs several times in the book making the storyline a little repetitious and frustrating. Having said that the narrative never bogs down, which is a testament to Ms. Beukes’ talent.

One girl of course survives, Kirby the protagonist. Now, before you complain about spoilers can you imagine a storyline where every single girl is killed off and Harper the psycho is triumphant at the end of the book? That kind of ending would never fly, especially in a New York Times bestseller like this one. Still, Harper does have things entirely his way for more than half the book and it is a little frustrating as Beukes has done too good a job of making him loathsome.

In spite of most of the girls being killed off there is a theme of women’s empowerment here which is admirable, and it does not take precedence over storytelling. Some of the murder scenes are quite violent but not overly gruesome, they are written from the girls’ point of view so the reader can sympathize with them rather than ride on the killer’s shoulders and for some kind of gratuitous thrills a la [a:James Patterson|3780|James Patterson|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1284492096p2/3780.jpg]'s serial killer novels.

At the end of the day The Shining Girls is a very good, compelling read, my above mentioned gripes notwithstanding. I have a lot of time for Ms. Beukes' writing style, characterization and story ideas, her other books [b:Zoo City|7163862|Zoo City|Lauren Beukes|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1303632588s/7163862.jpg|7514703], [b:Broken Monsters|20706269|Broken Monsters|Lauren Beukes|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1394562848s/20706269.jpg|27869457] etc. look intriguing to me and I suspect I may have already become a regular customer.

A very solid 4 stars then.