Date started: April 30th
Date finished: May 4th
It takes a lot for me to give a book five stars. I try not to do it very often, reserving it for only the most special of reads, else I worry it will become diluted through overuse. And yet, here I am, giving my second five star rating in the space of two books. Here we go again.
Like apparently most things within the last year or so, it starts with a My Little Pony toy. A strange man with a limp gives the pony to a six year old girl, along with a cryptic message that he’ll be along to collect it. The Shining Girls, contrary to what the title would suggest, is really the story of one woman and one man. The man is a violent drifter from 1930’s Chicago, Harper Curtis, who discovers a house (known simply as the House) while on the run from the police. Upstairs is a room with several women’s names scrawled on the walls in Harper’s own writing, along with several objects belonging to them including the aforementioned pony. When Harper leaves the house, he can leave at any time between the late 20’s through to the early 90’s, as he hunts down the girls he refers to as his Shining Girls throughout history, leaving behind anachronistic clues as the House instructs him.
Kirby Mazrachi is the survivor of one of Harper’s violent attacks, and she joins up with Dan Velasquez, a former crime reporter, now sports journalist for the Chicago Sun Times, as they attempt to track down Kirby’s would-be killer.
If it sounds complicated, that’s because it kind of is. The story flits between characters and time periods with wild abandon, telling much of the story in a non-linear fashion. Luckily, Beukes makes the fortunate choice of titling her chapters much like George R.R Martin does in his Song of Ice and Fire books; each chapter giving the name of the character involved and the date it takes place on. Events are foreshadowed early on that don’t pay off until the last quarter of the book, and the whole thing rattles through at a rollercoaster pace, almost never letting up. It’s safe to say that despite its place on supermarket shelves, The Shining Girls is about the furthest thing there is from a disposable airport read.
Despite all this, I never truly felt lost within the book, and I believe this is down to Beukes’s strong characterisation. Kirby is very much a proactive hero, determined to locate the man who hurt her at any cost, often risking her own life and well being to do so. She’s fortunately kept in check by Dan who, against his better instincts, takes an interest in Kirby’s case and Kirby herself. The two characters have good chemistry, and I always enjoyed their back and forth banter, which managed to stay on the right side of light hearted throughout, despite the often macabre subject matter.
The stand out character, however, was Harper himself. An already violent man driven to sadistic ends by the House’s influence, his parts were creepy, gory (and often revelling in it, as is fitting for such a character) and downright uncomfortable to read. At one point, his having sex is described as “grunting slipperiness”, and the amount of pleasure (sexual and otherwise) he derives from murdering his Shining Girls is difficult to read. He’s a villain who is genuinely evil, so if you like your antagonists to have some form of redemption about them, maybe look elsewhere.
Perhaps the most important character of all is Chicago itself, across all the time periods. I struggle to even imagine how much research went into it all. If the three or four pages of acknowledgements are any indication, it was a lot. I’ve never been to Chicago, so I can’t attest to the accuracy of the book, but the story has an excellent sense of place and time. Harper’s chapters read like someone a little old fashioned, Kirby’s have a more disaffected punk attitude about them, and other minor characters have their quirks, like a drug dealer called Mal, whose prose dips liberally into black street slang.
It all adds up to make The Shining Girls a novel that is compulsively readable, despite (or even because of) its complexity. Just don’t expect to be able to read ten or twenty pages and put it away for later.
Additional note: There is one additional thing I’d like to mention here that didn’t occur to me until after I’d finished the book. One of the titular Shining Girls is a transgender girl. She only features in a small part of the book, but her subplot is a strong one. It has no real bearing on my final opinion, but I have several transgender and LGBT activist friends, and I think it would be a big deal to them that though the character is transgender, she is treated no differently than any of the other Shining Girls. Score one for equal rights.
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