Amy at Sirens recommended this book to me when I asked for something incredibly creepy and more than slightly disgusting. She’s a good book recommender — if that was actually a full-time job that paid well, I’d definitely endorse her for it. I say that because with this, as with every single book she’s told me to read, she was spot-on. The Shining Girls was most precisely what I wanted, with the kind of characters and plot that leave me quivering with delight. And horror. Definitely horror. This was another one of those books that I felt driven to read as quickly as possible because it was eerie and I needed to know what happened, but in the end, I didn’t quite get the satisfaction I wanted.
I don’t mean that this book was bad — far to the contrary, it’s great, and if you like books along this vein, you will absolutely love it. No. I mean that Beukes denied the reader a neat and tidy ending, and the ability to walk away feeling as though the covers were done and the story was neatly told. Instead, I was left writhing in my reading chair, with half of me wishing I’d never started reading and the other half of me wanting to tell Amy immediately that her recommendation had been, as usual, perfect.
The Shining Girls is a little difficult to define. It’s, dare I say, genre-defying. The book follows several parallel timelines that span not just different characters, but different eras. Harper Curtis is a time-traveling killer, tied and rooted to a house that wants to use him to further its own dastardly ends, and I am a sucker for stories featuring malevolent objects that have taken on lives of their own; this is not a house that is haunted, strictly speaking, but a house that rather haunts the visitor, turning its victims into its servants. Thus, Curtis travels any timeline he wants, popping effortlessly in and out of history; he need only think of the era he wants to be in before stepping out the door. But he’s still driven by what the house wants.
Which makes him kind of the perfect killer. He does his work, and then he vanishes. He’s a serial killer who stretches his work across multiple generations, which makes it difficult to identify the connections between his crimes. Even when the connections become apparent, there’s no rational explanation; a father passing on the mantle to his son? A copycat? What? It doesn’t make sense, which is why law enforcement can’t really hope to apprehend him. He’s well aware of that, and uses it to his advantage as he drifts through the decades.
And yet, one of his victims survives. Kirby Mazrachi is viciously attacked in a park but he doesn’t get to finish the job, and she ends up vowing to get justice, furious about the attack and determined to find out who he was before taking him down. Meanwhile, Curtis is equally furious that she survived, restless not just at the thought of being caught if he ventures back to her timeline, but also disturbed at the thought of leaving the house’s work incomplete and defying the mandate it’s set out from him. Thus, the two are drawn closer and closer to an eventual collision, and a confrontation that peaks at the end of the book.
In many ways, The Shining Girls is about predetermination and fate, both that within the house and that created by Curtis. The house marks certain girls for death, pushes Curtis to find and kill them, and he gets into the habit of visiting them in childhood, of giving them small tokens to collect later when he kills them. Such tokens become almost like markers and tracers of death, following them as they grow up and then looping back in a vicious circle as he comes ’round to kill his victims. Along the way, he introduces anachronisms, objects out of time, things that don’t make sense, and it is these that Kirby zeroes in on as she tries to unravel the mystery.
When the two arrive at a final confrontation, however, the circular nature of the narrative is revealed. If you haven’t read the book yet, you should stop reading right now unless you don’t mind spoilers, because this is one of the most interesting aspects of the text, but it’s also something that you may want to wait and watch unfold for yourself. If the above hasn’t enticed you into picking up a copy and then popping back to this later, well, what can I say.
Moving along, as the two find themselves crashing together, we learn why the house is malevolent and imbued with a certain, shall we say, anthropomorphised nature. The house is Curtis. Curtis is the house. Curtis is caught in an endless loop as he tells himself who to kill, watches the narrative unfold again and again with the same result as Kirby traps him in the house. Kirby, in turn, will be attacked again and again, with time looping back in on itself; there is, as they say on Star Trek, a theory of time, where time becomes a loop, and the house is a loop that sits out of time, brushing up against it on occasion.
What takes place over a matter of days and weeks for Curtis is many lifetimes for the outside world, but eventually he is caught up and forced to relive it over and over again. Which makes The Shining Girls a fascinating and bizarre book — and you can see why the ending is strangely unsatisfying, because the ends are not neatly tied up at the end. We don’t get the satisfaction of knowing that the mystery is resolved and Curtis will never hurt anyone again, because in fact, he will go on hurting people until the end of time, with the loops of time and space endlessly repeating the same story.
And I find that utterly cool in addition to creepy. Beukes pushed right up against the boundaries with this text, which spanned across multiple genres and forced me as a reader to bend my own perceptions of literary fiction, of mystery, of science fiction. The Shining Girls is by turns a thriller and an exploration of science fiction and straight literary fiction, wrapped up in itself — much like the house that, it turns out, lies at the centre of the narrative.