May 27, 2013

A Reaper in Time: a review of Lauren Beukes' "The Shining Girls"

cover may vary
The Shining Girls
by Lauren Beukes
384 pages
ISBN13: 978031621685

The Time-Traveler's Wife meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hmm.

I try to avoid this-meets-that descriptions, but there are times when they work. The one above, which appears on the plot description on Goodreads, is serviceable, even though it doesn't come close to doing this novel justice.

The Shining Girls revolves around two opposing forces: a serial killer who gains the ability to travel through time in order to track his victims; and the one woman to be brutally attacked by him and live to tell the tale. Harper is a deranged vagrant from the 1930s who discovers a derelict house that seems to call to him. A special room leads to any time beyond the day he first discovers the house, decorated with the names of each girl he is destined to kill and seemingly random mementos strewn about the room. Kirby is one of his would-be victims from the 1980s, who barely survives the attempt on her life and spends years obsessing over the event, determined to seek him out and learn his uncanny ability to evade capture, studying journalism and taking an internship with a Chicago newspaper in order to find her attacker. Piece by piece, as a grizzled crime reporter turns sports journalist tries to keep her from falling too deep into the apparent hole she's digging for herself, Kirby finds clues that lead to an impossible answer.

How Harper comes to discover the house that ultimately allows him, even compels him to kill (at least in his own mind), is vague at first. It's his actual journey through the years, hunting his way through the various eras of Chicago in a seemingly random manner, that is so captivating. He is not a genius by any stretch of the imagination. Harper is simply a broken and wholly disturbed man endowed with a remarkable ability to evade capture. He finds his victims years, sometimes even decades, earlier in their lives than when he finally tortures and murders them. In Kirby's case, when she's a young girl. He gives her a cheap plastic pony as a give and tells her he'll see her again. And it's that inevitable moment when he does that adds such dread, as Kirby's storyline begins in the next chapter as an adult, years after surviving his assault. But for readers, that gruesome moment doesn't come until much later in the book, as their lives wind their way towards a third and final encounter.

Time travel is tricky business, what with those pesky paradoxes and all, but Lauren Beukes' temporal house of cards winds up quite sturdy. When you hit the final page, then look back at the story as a whole, you're going to marvel a little bit at how she constructed the whole story while maintaining its organic pacing and riveting conclusion.

If serial killers are a cliche, and let's face the fact that they kind of are at this point, Lauren Beukes has remedied that with what might be the most original twist in quite some time. If any of you mystery and thriller readers out there are at a loss on what novel to read this summer, The Shining Girls ought to be near the top of your lists.


  1. I am not usually into time travel books, but this one sounds good. The serial killer aspect intrigues me. Thank you for reviewing.

  2. You just might like it, Midnyte. Intriguing characters would likely outweigh any aversion to time travel gimmick.