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the cover of The Shining Girls


The girl who wouldn't die hunts the killer who shouldn't exist.

The future is not as loud as war, but it is relentless. It has a terrible fury all its own.

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is the girl who was never meant to have a future.

Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times.

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He's the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable-until one of his victims survives.

Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth... (source)


This is a story about the murder of women, viciously gendered violence, and the brutal nature of time.

I cannot stress enough: this book is about the serial stalking of young girls followed by their horrific deaths as adults by a sexualized male predator. It is, especially for those sensitive to malicious violence aimed at girls and women, something to be handled with care, and possibly not attempted at all.

When I first heard that Lauren Beukes was going to be releasing a book about a time traveling serial killer that targeted what the press for the book called "shining girls", I was intrigued but extremely dubious. I was unsure of how I was going to feel about yet another entry into Dead Lady Media given how much I already watch (and often like) that uses its women in violent ways. How much media do I already watch and read that cuts down its women, wrecking bloody havoc through their lives and stories? Less now than I used to since I've dropped many procedural shows, but I've survived four seasons of Supernatural so far (hahasob the things I do for the promise of homoerotic angel shenanigans), and I'm a big fan of Grimm which often runs into this problem. Even then, this book disturbed me on a host of levels from paranoia to outright fear. I dreamt, while reading this story, of being watched and assessed, and woke up to a pounding heart, scrambling for the light convinced someone was in my apartment.

Being a woman has never been easy; this book is a reminder that it won't be for a long time, as if I needed one.

We talk about "liking" and "not liking" a book. At times like these and with books like this, I look at any rating scale and ask how in the world I'm supposed to use them to convey any useful meaning whatsoever. How can I give this two stars and four and a half at the same time? How do I resolve the misery within this book with my drive to finish it, after reaching November 22, 1931 and knowing I couldn't turn away? The questions get harder the deeper you go. What is the House? What is the loop that Harper is trapped in? What commentary is the book making about women and history? But my most pressing question of all is: why would a woman write a book like this?

I have some assumptions based on my own experiences of living with a constant fear of walking alone at night, through seemingly abandoned areas, or just existing as a lady in predominantly male spaces. The decisions I make about my physical location are explicitly tied to the culture that surrounds me; society would say I have "learned my lesson" about trusting men around me and acting as if I have the right to assume I am safe in familiar places, and that it was a good thing I learned it young, sixteen and confused and betrayed. I've seen reviews and official press copy for this book that talk about Kirby and frame her as "not a victim, but a survivor". However, I have a lot of problems with this descriptive tool and the assumptions involved within it. I see how it might be useful as a psychological device to move past a traumatic event, but the way it's being used in regards to this story feels like a denial of experience. As if, by living, Kirby canceled out her experience as a victim and has instead become only a survivor through her pressing need to know who tried to murder her and why. I know, I know, I go on and on about nuance. But survivors are who they are because they were once victims of something. It's not as if there is an island of experience, where you're a victim, and you find a way across the ocean to the survivor island, leaving the victim island behind for good. But I see it as a much more intricate concept; an archipelago of experience connected by choices we make as we recover or regress in a loop as our lives continue, caused by good, happy times or bad, triggering times that we can travel to any time. This isn't All Dogs Go To Heaven, or a scale where ticking forward means it's a struggle to go back. Time travel, the ultimate metaphor for life: we live in a series of infinite loops of our combined experiences. We're always moving backwards and forward in the timeline of our lives through the events we've lived. That's how memory works.

Kirby was, for me, very unreliable, and I felt like she had bought into this victim/survivor language 100% problematically, because she saw herself as a survivor only, and denied the victim. She doesn't want to be treated like a victim, given sympathy, or romanticized, and often shuns people that take liberties with her experience. She never wanted to play the role of the victim, and who can blame her? Our society likes to tell us that being a survivor is the goal. The language around it suggests that survivors have shed all the problematic pieces of their victimization and I believe she bought into that narrative. The problem was I kept seeing her cracks: her obsession with Harper, how she treated and showed her scars to people, her inability to hear and accept "no", and respect both legal and personal limits. Of course, Kirby watches everyone else move on, both family, friends, and the culture around her and barely moves at all except deeper into her experience. In a culture that is so focused on policing women's behavior it's hard to see a young woman being sad and angry being given the necessary time to cope and come to terms with things in their own way without being told to "move on with your life", which is something that quite a few people do — until Dan, who engages, who listens, calls bullshit where he sees it but doesn't deny her perspective or insinuate to her that she's wasting her life. If you're not ready, and no one can see to help you, I feel like it's easy to do exactly what Kirby does ̵ refuse to let go.

Kirby was a victim multiple times: of Harper, of a mother who was out of her depth, of a culture that often mishandles or abuses victims for being victims. We meet Kirby both before and after the day she stumbles out of the forest, bloody and dying, and so can see the change between these snapshots of a life — watch her focus narrow through time until the uncertain future, the moment after — infinite and unknowable. Right now, our culture is locked into an exhausting dance with gender roles and stereotypes, and the loop Harper and the House pull the shining girls into feels to me like a commentary of how we spend years and years circling the same topics of gender-based violence as women step forward into the light more and more. We keep pushing, we keep taking what is rightfully ours as human beings, and so we shine with the possibilities we encompass and we continue to be raped and murdered and stalked and devalued as people, often men, attempt to expunge us from history.

That's what I keep coming back to when I think about the women Harper kills. Harper, our serial killer and sociopath, not only kills these women, but he removes the potential of them from history. He removes all the good they would have done, the changes they would have wrought in their worlds, whether it would have been political or social or otherwise. I'm sure I could wax metaphorical for pages about how Harper's willingness to kill women in all parts of time is a thread that weaves in and out of every decade of the world we live in. The destruction of powerful, sweet, creative, depressed, political, community-oriented, inquisitive women is a hallmark of our society — women who are ahead of their time, who challenge dominant structures, who dare to be who they are regardless of what their culture thinks, and who refuse to give up are all victims of this thread of violence. We could play a game — is the House a metaphor for misogyny? Is Harper, who is so closely tied to the House, telling the story of how men come to inhabit cultural biases, subjugate and tear women down, as he stalks and kills women, from an inability to see others as fully human? We are not born biased against anyone; our world does that for us. Are his travels through time a way to communicate how the same type of hatred and entitlement courses through the culture of men to plague every decade, regardless of perceived progress? In the end, finishing the book only made me want to read it again and take better notes, so I could see all the connections and try to puzzle it all out. I am sure it would be fascinating to read the book in a myriad of different ways: straight through in the order of the dates given at the top of each chapter; in order by year, backwards to trace Kirby's steps as well as Harper's.

Perhaps, at its core, the book is about empathy, and how so much of the world, when it comes to seeing one another as complex individuals, fails consistently. Perhaps the book is saying that the real answer to breaking these loops is connection to others, and the beauty of finding someone who isn't afraid to connect.

I wanted to know why a woman would write a book like this. I still only have assumptions, but I don't think there's just one answer. There's likely a multitude of reasons, just like there are a multitude of interpretations for the novel itself. It could be the exploration of a girl who wanted to live, who was saved twice because she cared and let herself be loved even when hesitant and worried. It could be a story about a girl who tackled a mystery in a fantastical revenge fantasy in her own way and in her own time and trusted herself even when the rest of her life was telling her to move on. It could be a study of how someone becomes obsessed with the destruction of the future because in so many ways they are trapped in the past, unable to escape. It could be commentary on victimization. It could be an incisive story about the sheer thrill in facing the monsters we as women know lurk in the places we least expect, at the times we're the least prepared and the most vulnerable, and winning. It could be a story used as an excuse to create what looks, upon reflection, quite like a ghost story; a story of possession with political and social meaning at the point where gender and power intersect.

And hey, it could just be a mediocre crime thriller with time travel pasted on, archetypical players that revolve around the main character with an ease not earned, paid for with witty banter and the Strong Female Heroine trope with bonus Tragic Past. It could have no underlying meaning or reason than to kill women for funsies all to explore a man whose story is, at its core, malevolent and irredeemable. Perhaps it is simply an uncritical romp through a different genre and style, with shorthand historical throwbacks that undercut more in-depth characterization of women destined for destruction.

Of course, I think the narrative is more than that; a surface reading does this book no favors. I finished the book understanding why so many of the girls, to Harper, probably shined. The book draws clear lines between his focus on them, their lives, and their deaths. However, Kirby eluded me, until the very end.

Perhaps I don't have the right answer, and Kirby's shine is something else altogether (her ability as an investigative journalist, maybe?), but I can't resist the draw, the perfect temptation of my assumption of Kirby's worth because the chapters tell us Harper steps out into 1931 — his time — but back into 1993.

Kirby's time. Kirby's future.

Harper wasn't wrong in the end. What shine she has.

Other Reviews:
The Book Smugglers, Liz Bourke (Tor.com), Bookworm Blues, Susie Hufford (SF Signal), Val's Random Comments, Violin in a Void, Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Reviews, Alan Cheuse (NPR), Tenacious Reader, Paper Knife, yours?

Supplemental Material:

Date: 2013-05-30 03:55 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I just wanted to say again that I love your paragraph about "victim" vs "survivor" so much ♥

Date: 2013-09-05 02:42 am (UTC)
chaila: Diana SWORDFIGHTING in a BALLGOWN. (reading)
From: [personal profile] chaila
I am glad to finally be able to read this review! I just finished this book. It made me physically ill at least twice, it made me scared to be in my apartment alone, and yet I didn't want to stop reading it. I still don't really know how I feel. Because it didn't seem like a romp through dead female bodies. I really felt that Beukes was trying to say more than that, with the particular social and political and personal circumstances that she gave the "shining girls." I think what stuck with me was Harper's line that "It’s not my fault. It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this." But at the same time, he's devastated to find the one girl who doesn't "shine" anymore. He doesn't get "joy" out of it unless he's stamping out real potential in the women, real power. It's sort of impossible for me not to read this as commentary on the world reacting to women who are somehow defying conventions or seeking attention or seeking to change things or just succeeding. But then, Harper is also presented as a psychopath who doesn't even seem to know why he does what he does, which removes some of the power of that metaphor for me? But it also didn't really occur to me to read the mysterious House as part of that metaphor, and I still don't know if I do/can, so I did still keep getting distracted by the loving detail in the violence and the mystery of the purpose or beginning of it all.

That's what I keep coming back to when I think about the women Harper kills. Harper, our serial killer and sociopath, not only kills these women, but he removes the potential of them from history. He removes all the good they would have done, the changes they would have wrought in their worlds, whether it would have been political or social or otherwise.

Basically this!

I thought it was also enormously important that Chicago is the backdrop, and that the most recent Chicago surrounding the House is the Chicago in the worst shape? It's not until the most recent time depicted in the book that the entire surrounding neighborhood is written off and left to decay and violence. I'm not sure how closely this was tied to the fact that the treatment of women doesn't get better throughout the history, but it struck me.

I didn't love this book, I guess, or think it was wholly successful in its intentions, but it did make me think.

And then the Guardian described Beukes as having "enormous fun" with the time travel concept. And, wow, I just don't know. I know what they meant but, just wow. The fact that the time travel concept can be separated from the time traveling serial killer targeting women concept, and then described as "enormous fun," seems emblematic of part of the book's whole point. :/ Which then makes me like it more!

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