Zoo City put her name on the genre map. Nominated for and winning awards, her semi-cyberpunk Johannesburg with animal familiars was a success. The actual quality of the novel a touch more equivocal, it was certain, however, latent talents were bursting to be developed. The follow up novel, 2013’s The Shining Girls, reveals the next step.
A very dark, very visceral, very brutal story, The Shining Girls is about a time-traveling serial killer focusing on women. Locked up in that sentence is the potential for cheese—and from some aspects the novel doesn’t escape a little stink. But it does in others, Beukes’ talents stepping up to provide substance worth the time. Ignoring the shimmy-shammy of explaining time travel to cut to the heart of her schema, Beukes tells the victim’s stories, and how their arcs through life are cut unnecessarily short by one deranged man.
Harper Curtis is mentally ill, and ultra-violent for it. Drifting through Depression-era Chicago, he stumbles across a mysterious house and a key that allows him to time travel to 1993, and any time between. Becoming obsessed with certain little girls he finds along the way, he takes something from them—a toy, a memento, a something—and time travels ahead to when they are adults to murder them in cold blood. The police unable to catch him, his killing goes unchecked, that is, until setting Kirby Mazrachi in his cross-hairs. Surviving the murder attempt, Kirby turns to investigative journalism to track Harper down.
The Shining Girls revealed wonderfully, the main strengths of the novel are the manner in which Beukes interleaves the stories of the girls and Harper. Narrative control is superb as the plot bounces around time and place, things unfurling naturally for the reader, even if unnaturally in real-time. And secondly is the sense of scene and setting. Beukes obviously putting research into Chicago in the 20th century, Harper, Kirby, and the other girls’ tales are fully nuanced with little details of location and decade that bring the novel to life. (I do not mention characterization, as it tends to fall somewhere in the middle, stereotype as apparent as idiosyncrasy.)
Where The Shining Girls falters is the repetition, even predictability of the storylines. Introduce girl, build sympathy, then have Harper kill her in gory fashion—this is the formula readily visible. And everybody knows Kirby will get Harper in the end, the only question is how. Exacerbating is that all of the women killed are “shining.” In the sense that they are promising, on the cusp of discovering something, becoming better people, advancing their careers, advocating social advances for women, or otherwise, it’s no lie that the reader is wholly manipulated when Harper’s knife disembowels, cutting off the potential. Another way of putting this is, there are no female crack addicts, child abusers, sour librarians, etc. among the women killed. It’s imbalanced. Every woman altruistic to the nines, they become even less worthy of murder, e.g. nobody would care if Harper offed a female child abuser. By skewing the story so sharply, it can be said Beukes is playing with the reader, which in turn undermines, or at least reduces the impact of the novel’s agenda.
If it isn’t obvious, there is a feminist itinerary to The Shining Girls—perhaps even feminist sledge hammer if all of the violence and blood and guts of women at the hands of a man is taken too close to heart. The character Dan does exist to balance male representation, but, as mentioned above, the women in the story are only partially representative of female-dom. Kirby’s mother, and to some snarky degree Kirby herself, can be said to be characteristic—portrayed in a manner exceeding symbolic victimhood. But the others are a cheap shot. Yes, the overwhelming majority of serial killers are men, and yes some do target only women. But serial killers are an extreme-extreme minority of the population, and, more importantly, nobody, male or female, condones their actions. From a feminist—even human—perspective there’s little controversial or challenging about a man murdering women. I trust that there are more pervasive, more concerning issues perpetrated by men against women worthy of examination in fiction. The fact Beukes spends a good portion of the story reveling in the violent details of murder only confirms the novels’ commercial aims were stronger than literary. (In her next—serial killer—novel,, Broken Monsters, Beukes would better balance the two.)
In the end, The Shining Girls is a novel that makes apparent Beukes has taken her awareness of the craft of writing to the next level. Plotting, setting, and the coherence of story elements are improvements over Zoo City. But the novel still fails to fully achieve its potential. Possessing more integrity were the mode to have been moved away from sensationalism toward representative human interest, what remains is a violent, almost fetishistic spot of well-written entertainment with easy to understand, i.e. nod your head in agreement, commentary on the male potential for violence toward women. I retain hope that the remaining 99.9% of men live according to different ideals…
*Reading “reviews” of The Shining Girls, I came across the following quote. Too funny to pass up, it goes to show how abysmally low the state of literature criticism has sunk in the 21st century.
“I just finished The Shining Girls and would have appreciated this information before I started the book: not only does the villain murder many intelligent, hard working women with dreams, aspirations and responsibilities, he also kills a dog in a very heart rending fashion. There, now you've been warned.”
If trigger warnings need to be placed on the cover of Beukes' novel, then we might as well put warnings on the cover of every novel, which, of course, highlights the absurdity of the whole enterprise to begin with. The world is a good and bad place. If you're unprepared to deal with the bad, don't open your front door. Or, perhaps the better option, toughen up a little mentally. The bad will be a much easier place to navigate.