Finally a thriller that is not the 'Next Gone Girl' or a pale imitation of The Girl on the Train. I'm quite impressed by Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls. I wasn't entirely sure starting out that it would live up to the cover blurb of "a tense, compelling thriller", but in the end she won me over. Not only was it a good thriller, but it had a little extra substance and best of all-it is a fresh and unusual story with a plot ploy that I'd not come across before. That says a lot in a genre that is flooded by stories. Lots and lots of stories that are the 'next best thing' but often the stories are very 'samey' if you know what I mean.
I don't tend to pick up stories that involve serial killers. I read lots of crime novels and mysteries and like suspense but I prefer to avoid stories that are overly graphic or gruesome. A little bit goes a very long way with me. It seems that whenever you pick up a book involving a serial killer it is an automatic flag that there will be lots of blood involved and nasty, messy crimes that are twisted with descriptions that are far too vivid for my tastes.
Well, The Shining Girls does involve a serial killer. There is some description of murders, a few scenes that are unpleasant and somewhat graphic, but nothing was too over the top or gratuitous. The killer is nasty and beyond reproof but Beukes doesn't 'glamorize' him, if that makes sense. The crimes are nasty is every sense of the word, but it's how the author handles all this that I can appreciate.
So, yes, Harper is a serial killer. Oh yes, one more thing, you will need to suspend disbelief just a tad to really appreciate the story, which begins in 1974 with a young girl playing outside by herself and is approached by a man who only talks to her. He gives her a plastic toy pony and tells her (or thinks it anyway) that she 'shines' and that he'll meet her again someday. That's what he tells all the girls.
Rewind time all the way back to 1931 and again we meet Harper. He's not a nice person in 1931 and less so over the decades, through which he can slip into and out of almost at will. Thanks to the House. It's all down to a run in with a blind woman wearing a man's coat. And those men he's trying to get away from. The men who work him over and leave him. That's why he finds the House. The coat, the men, the violence, the House.
"Everything happens for a reason. It's because he is forced to leave that he finds the House. It is because he took the coat that he has the key."
The key to time. The key that enables him to slip into and out of time. The perfect way to commit the perfect crime. Crime undetectable. He meets the women as their childhood selves and then later when they are young women he goes into the future and and murders them. He always takes a trinket and leave a trinket from someone he has murdered. No matter that the trinkets are anachronistic. To Kirby he gives a pony, which has not actually been manufactured yet. But who knows. Who looks so closely. It's not too far out of time. He gets better as he goes. He knows what to do and how to do it and how not to get caught. You see the girls have this light about them. They shine--just like the constellations in the sky. It's almost predetermined that it is going to happen. It's like a self-fulfilling prophesy. He can't not do it. And he would have gotten away with all of it had it not been for Kirby.
Kirby is the little girl who Harper meets in 1974. And then again in 1992. He kills her, he finishes the job. Or at least he thinks he does. But maybe Kirby's light shines just a little too brightly. She manages to save herself with the help of her dog. Harper must make a quick get away and jump back through time to avoid getting caught. He thinks he covers his trail. He thinks he completed the job. He really messed Kirby up and he almost finished her. But she survives. And she becomes obsessed with him. She fears him but she can't live the way she lives--with a scar across her neck where he slashed her and she almost died.
I'm not giving anything away by telling you that The Shining Girls is a story of a murderer who travels through time leaving behind him a trail of bodies. I think it quite clever and Beukes handles it well. It is something of a stretch of the imagination, but it really works. The story is not told in a linear fashion and it is not just Kirby's and Harper's stories. The other women are victims but also not 'just' victims. They are characters who have their own stories to tell. Initially I was wary of how much detail of the lives of these women was given. You start to become attached to them knowing their lives will not have happy outcomes.
Is this really what I wanted from a story that is suspenseful and knowing how things would end? It felt almost like being punched in the gut each new time. But this was purposeful--Beukes didn't want to show the women as a "sexy dead body, with her tousled blonde hair and one discarded stiletto, lying in a pool of blood." Thank you. This is why I avoid most novels featuring serial killers. Almost always the victims are women and the crimes are not pretty. And sometimes it does feel like they are nameless and faceless but they are beautiful and something sadistic happens and it is meant to be entertainment. And that makes me uncomfortable. Beukes's novel sometimes made me a little uncomfortable, too, but in an entirely different way. A way, on reflection, which I think is good. And yes, it is a page turner, too. It did take me a short while to feel the rhythm of the story and see where it was going, understand what was happening. By then, of course, I was well and truly hooked.
I'll be looking for her other novels now. This was my last RIP read (I managed three this year plus lots of good stories). I'll still read a couple more stories to fit in with the season, but The Shining Girls was the perfect way to end my RIP reading. By the way, which cover do you like better? I read a UK edition of the book (second cover--on the left of this post), which I think worked nicely with the story.