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Jinsuk. Zora. Willie. Kirby. Margo. Julia. Catherine. Alice. Misha. Nine female names written on the bedroom wall in a house outside of time. Nine shining girls Harper Curtis is compelled to kill. One young woman, scarred from wounds she should not have been able to survive, hunting a murderer who cannot be real.
Not being much of a thriller fan, I would probably never have picked up The Shining Girls if I had not already been introduced to Lauren Beukes writing through her two previous novels – the cyberpunk-flavoured SF novel Moxyland and the alternate reality urban fantasy Zoo City, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thriller was not what I expected to see from her next, but Beukes did definitely not disappoint with The Shining Girls.
The back of the book promises “A thriller which breaks all boundaries,” and while it certainly breaks the boundaries of time, the main concept of the novel is pretty standard: there are murders and a perpetrator to hunt down. In charge of the hunt is Kirby, the only one of the victims to survive. Marked forever by the violence of her would-be murderer, the hunt for justice and revenge has become as an obsession to her. Privately investigating every stabbing of a woman in Chicago during the last two, she is desperate to find any clue of the man that hurt her and how to catch him. However, Kirby finds that it is not an easy thing to get a lead on him – he flits away like smoke, impossible to get hold of – but she refuses to give up.
It is not only the fantastical elements that set this thriller a little bit apart from others of the same genre. The Shining Girls is not only about Harper Curtis and his “shining girls” and Kirby’s hunt for justice, but also a novel about men’s violence against women in general. Harper knows nothing about these women except that they shine and that he needs to put that glow out: “She was the kind of girl you couldn’t keep down. Unless you cut her up and caved in her skull.” It is not his own fault that he is cutting up women, of course; if they would just keep from shining the way they do, he would not have to kill them. The time travel helps with adding this dimension to the story, turning it from one lone madman’s killings into an unbreakable loop, replicated endlessly through the decades, of death and violence aimed at women. The nine women whose names are written on the wall are “dead girls, who are not dead yet, who are perpetually dying or marked to die.”
The killings are described in grisly and bordering on morbid detail; Harper hacking these women up like so much meat, because that is all they are to him once he starts making them stop shining, but it is does not come across gratuitous or sensational as such scenes have a tendency to do. Rather, they are painful to read – Beukes twisting the knife (pun intended) to drive her point home further.
If I have made this book out to sound like a heavy read, I’ll stress that it is definitely not. It deals with heavy subjects, certainly, but it is still an enjoyable read, made so to a large extent by Kirby. Despite all the suffering she has gone through and the many scars, mental and physical, she bears, she is not ruined by it. Changed, yes, but not broken, and she refuses to stop fighting and is constantly kicking back, unwilling to accept that something like this can be allowed happen, demanding justice for what has been done to her, even if it means that she has to take it upon herself to get it.