Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls is about a time-traveling serial killer who snuffs out promising young women by brutally murdering them, and the lone surviving victim who becomes obsessed with finding him. But as cool as that concept sounds the book doesn’t really follow through on any aspect of it.
Take the time travel. It happens through a bit of hand-waving — there is a House that allows its occupant (in this case the serial killer) to step out at any point in a several-decade span of time. I’m ok with the fact that Beukes never explains how or why the House does this. But I’m not ok with how little she explores the time-traveling aspect of this story. Sure, there are some funny little loops that pop up (like the serial killer discovering a dead body “before” he’s killed the person) but for the most part the House serves the purely functional purpose of delivering the killer to his next victim. It might as well have been the subway, or underground tunnels, or a discreet chauffeur. There are no Primer-style paradoxes, or Back to the Future-style callbacks, or even the glimmer of a Big Idea from any of the people who discover the House and really should be knocked on their asses by the thought of what they could do with a time travel device. Beukes is so uninterested in the really interesting ramifications of time travel that it’s not clear to me why time travel had to be part of this book at all.
Next, the “shining” girls. Why does the serial killer (his name is Harper BTW) target them? Never explained. Are they actually girls with a bright future? That’s my guess — but who knows. (One of them is a stripper who literally glows from irradiated paint, which doesn’t strike me as a resume item for a Leader of Tomorrow.) It occurs to me that the shining girls are probably just a random collection of picaresques. And although Beukes admittedly does a good job in the few chapters told from the disparate victims’ POVs, if they’re just any old collection of people that makes both Harper’s obsession and the book’s point seem very small potatoes indeed.
Finally, the lone surviving victim, a young woman named Kirby. Her miraculous survival is told in one of the book’s most harrowing and effective chapters but outside of that she’s kind of useless. I’m dancing carefully around spoilers here but suffice to say that (1) she never really figures anything out from 95 percent of her “investigation,” (2) the solution, quite literally, comes to her rather than vice versa, and (3) she resolves nothing really — the cycle of deaths will continue, if I’m reading the ending right. If Kirby had just sat on her butt instead of engaging in lame repartee with a much older reporter who has the hots for her twenty-three-year-old self (a gross sidestory to this book), the result would not have been that different.
So all the really nifty parts of this book — the time travel, the victim class, the protagonist — don’t amount to much. But I didn’t hate The Shining Girls. It was very good in spots and easy enough to read one subway ride at a time. It just never felt as awesome or fresh or surprising as its premise promised.