The Weight of Nested Paradoxes: Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls

This is a novel about a time-travelling serial killer from the 1930s, his victims, the girl who survived him, and a burned-out murder-beat journalist. It’s competently, even excellently, written, makes brilliant use of a non-linear narrative to create and build tension, wears its American Literature influences proudly on its sleeve—

And for me, despite its technical competence, The Shining Girls is ultimately a frustrating mess of a novel, one whose climax falls apart under the weight of nested paradoxes.

In 1931 Chicago, Harper Curtis kills a woman and takes a key from her pocket. The key leads him to The House, whose door opens on different times, where he is confronted by a room full of trophies from murders he will commit—because he has already committed them.

In 1991 Chicago, Kirby Mazrachi becomes an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times, working alongside Dan Velasquez. Two years ago she survived a horrific attack. Dan reported on it at the time. He’s since moved into sports journalism, but Kirby is determined to use her time at the paper to track down the man who nearly murdered her.

Harper stalks his victims through time, taking and leaving trophies, watching them as children, killing them as adults. Kirby stalks newspaper cuttings and the families of murder victims, searching for any trace of her assailant, any evidence of his identity. The narrative slips back and forward in time, and both serial killer and survivor are driven, obsessive; both come across as essentially shallow characters. Hollow vessels. Mirrors in an empty room.

To be fair, I suppose I should be upfront with my biases. I’ve found sociopathy fundamentally boring for years, however horrific its results. Shorn of their inciting incidents, serial murderers, regardless of type, aren’t actually all that interesting as characters. They aren’t even particularly horrifying, any more than rabid animals are horrifying.* And Harper Curtis doesn’t make a great deal of sense as a serial killer, although the magic-realism tone of The House sequences invites one to overlook the incomprehensible paradox of his victimology. (I’m pretty sure structuring your narrative inevitability around time paradox is a type of cheating…) And I’ve never really liked the tone of American Literature-with-a-capital-L.**

Among my problems with The Shining Girls are ones of a socio-political nature. Ana Grillo of The Book Smugglers has written about the gendered nature of its violence in her review. Rather than recapitulate arguments over whether or not that violence is itself problematic, I want to point out that as far as I can tell, the non-white characters are all murder victims, with the exception of one black heroin addict whose POV is written in (to my non-specialist’s reading ear) a subtly off rendition of African American Vernacular English.

In fact, I can pick at The Shining Girls’ problems all day. It’s the kind of book that goes down easy, but never seems to amount to more than the sum of its parts; well-written but ultimately hollow. I can’t judge its success or failure because I can’t figure out what kind of book it was trying to be, although I can see it was trying to be something. Is it all metaphor? What does it mean? Is there a thematic argument in here somewhere? I can’t find it, and that’s a sensation as frustrating as the wiggle of a loosened tooth.

Tonally, stylistically, it seems like the kind of book to appeal to readers of Niffenegger and Roth, a book to be welcomed in book clubs in which the likes of me never felt at home. But its structure rests on paradox: everything that will happen has already happened. In the end, the House is Harper is the House is Harper, and I’m still scratching my head over what just happened.

It’s not so much a possession as an infection.

The House was always his.

Always him. [350]

In the end, while it’s interesting in an abstract sort of way, The Shining Girls leaves me cold and rather unsatisfied. I’m going to be intrigued to see what other people make of it.

*Although possibly I’ve watched far too much serial-killer-thriller TV. After the fourth season of Criminal Minds, it’s hard to find serial killers interesting in and of themselves anymore.

**I know Beukes is South African, but the influences are obvious.


Liz Bourke tweets, blogs, and does many other things. At least, when not reading books.

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