Monday, June 24, 2013

The Shining Girls (Lauren Beukes)

I don't normally do thrillers. My first real one was Gone Girl last December, and I absolutely loved it, but not so much for the thriller aspects. So I was a little hesitant to pick up The Shining Girls; I'm not a fan of crime procedural anything, be it books or movies or television shows. They're painfully formulaic. But as I have been dealing with time-travel books recently, I allowed the same concept here to pull me in.

Namely, there is a serial killer with a magic house that allows him to travel freely between Chicagos of different time periods in order to better pursue his victims, the titular "shining girls". The twist, then, is one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, did not die after he tries to kill her. She becomes obsessed with finding him. Even writing about the premise, I'm sucked back in by how interesting it sounds.

But I was disappointed. Beukes came up with one of the most blurbable premises for a book ever and then failed to execute it properly. The book is medium-length, about 400 pages and manages to be too short and too long all at once. There's a horrifying lack of development in those things that we care about and a staggering amount of focus on the things we don't want to hear about.  A lot of the reviews I read prior to reading The Shining Girls said they were disappointed because of how little explanation there is for how the House works or why Harper is a serial killer.

I thought to myself, "that's silly; we don't need an explanation about the magical realism involved in the house or the psychology of Harper", but after I read the whole book, I agree. I am not necessarily concerned with how the House works; I still stand by my statement about accepting magical realism at face value. And I understand that the point of serial killers is that there is just something in their brains that makes them want to kill, so that wasn't it, either. Too often did the book (or, I suppose, Beukes) feel comfortable in side-stepping any explanation by saying things about how it's fate and destiny and it's just meant to happen so it does.

When Harper enters the house for the first time, everything has already been set up (the names of the girls, the objects he leaves on their bodies), but it's been done by the him that has inhabited the house in the times before the time when he finds the key to the house--things appear and disappear and he does things because he knows he does them and that they're going to happen. It's very confusing and I know it's supposed to be a comment on the cyclical nature of time (I mean, how many times does Beukes say stuff about "closing the circle" and "time folded in on itself", jeez), but it's not helpful. It's just head-scratching and eventually annoying when Harper just goes along doing the things he does because he has to. I and evidently tons of other readers need more information. Where is it?

And then there's Kirby herself, our heroine that was so boring and uninteresting that I wanted nothing to do with her. That's a serious problem in the book: I didn't care at all what was happening to the important "present moment" anchor character. I tried to speed through her sections when possible. The book is set in the early '90s and Kirby feels more like a parody of that decade's punk scene than an actual member of that fringe group. Let's not forget generic Dan Velasquez, the ex-homicide reporter whose wife left him and he gets into sportswriting after suffering a heart attack and he has to stop smoking but he sneaks it sometimes and oops maybe he has feelings for his intern who happens to be the same boring Kirby. The moments when the two interact were painful to read--Beukes tried to make Dan and Kirby have a snarky relationship, but their dialogue is tired and unfunny. I cringed more than once.

So what did I like about the novel? Harper is actually a fascinating character and the vignettes that display his interactions with his "shining girls" were captivating and enthralling--from what I understand about thrillers, you're not supposed to be able to put them down because you've been so sucked in, and that was true of the opening of the novel, which mostly focuses on Harper time-jumping. It's heartbreaking then, to switch between these little glimpses of Harper and the sections that focus on Kirby or Dan--everything about the former parts are well-crafted and engaging and the latter parts are almost elementary in their assembly.

It feels like Beukes had her brilliant plot device and worked really hard on the parts where that concept gets use because they shine (terrible pun). The other parts feel like rough character sketches that she hurriedly wrote in an attempt to give the book a "thriller" plot (which, honestly, was not exciting at all--Kirby spends a long part of the book searching for her killer which is boring and bloated because we already know all about him); the Harper killer vignettes obviously can't stand on their own, but the plot that she uses to bring all of these elements together is, frankly, not good.

So the question becomes "how much did I dislike this book?" I'm torn between "meh" and "dislike" because of how really, really great the creepy serial killer sections of the book are. But absolutely everything apart from those moments is pretty dreadful. I guess you can give it a try if you're into thrillers. You probably won't mind all the stuff that bothered me.

My rating: 2.5/5
The Shining Girls on Goodreads
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