Susie Hufford is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College & a freelance writer.
Lauren Beukes’ new novel The Shining Girls is a repulsive, and yet strangely addicting, read. It can’t be denied that Beukes has talent, and her talent shines brightest in moments when she engages the psyche of serial killer, Harper Curtis, as he grotesquely pulls the wings off a bee or contemplates stabbing out a child’s eyes. Shining Girls is pitched by the publisher as a combination of The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but it’s not clear if those two excellent books ever should have combined forces.
Beukes’ eerie tale focuses on Kirby Mazrachi, a survivor of Harper Curtis’ chain of serial killings and a pale shadow of Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. Obsessed with finding her attacker, Mazrachi interns at the Sun-Times, where Dan Velasquez, a burned out sports reporter, had previously covered chains of gruesome killings. Through working together and unraveling the mystery of Curtis’ murders, the duo flirt towards a romance that never progresses past tepidity. Although Beukes establishes a rapport between the two characters, the couple remains largely unconvincing. Mazrachi is obviously emotionally vulnerable after her attack, and as she is an intern working for Dan, the balance of power is off – and not in a sexy way. Dialogue often feels a bit forced: when Mazrachi jokes about putting an advertisement in the paper for a “Single White Male serial killer wanted for good times and life sentence,” Velasquez responds, “You’re being obstreperous.” “Word of the day!” Mazrachi “teases” in response. It often feels as though Velasquez is just humoring Mazrachi, who he considers child-like, which cannot be denied – she’s years younger than him. The unfortunate result of Beukes’ inability to acknowledge these issues beyond surface consideration led to a couple that wasn’t believable or engaging, and ultimately the poorest point of the novel.
While Beukes doesn’t successfully create sexual tension between the two cutout characters of Dan and Kirby, she truly excels in moments of shocking gore. The most compelling part of Shining Girls is Harper Curtis’ demented viewpoint. He gains sexual excitement from his kills, and Beukes portrays his psyche unflinchingly. In one of the more disgusting kills, Curtis “tries to be more elaborate to make up for the lack of joy this brings him. It takes her a long time to die. But there is no one to hear her. […] He stuffs tobacco leaves in the gaping wounds, so it looks as if the plants are growing out of her body.” This is not a book to read while eating, unless you can stomach the image of a bumblebee’s wings being torn off, which Curtis does in the first chapter. “Pulling off the wings makes the same dull pop sound as plucking the stem off a sour cherry, like the ones he spent a season picking in Rapid City,” Beukes artfully describes. The images Beukes provides of the killings and violence are completely haunting in both their disturbing nature and because of the skill with which they are rendered.
The organization of the novel is a puzzle, and there are point of view shifts for each new victim of Curtis’. As a reader, one will come to expect that each new woman will die (Kirby Mazrachi being the only exception) and wonder if all this characterization is even necessary, as it certainly doesn’t render them more lifelike. Through the first half of the novel, less attentive readers may find themselves suddenly lost in a point of view shift from a random time notated at the start of the chapter and since communicated poorly. It’s also not entirely clear why Curtis picks his victims. Although they “shine,” it’s never revealed how he came up with this categorization, why it haunts him, or if this is a sign of some unusual psychological problem.
The Shining Girls is a read that gets better as it speeds towards its conclusion. Most readers will be satisfied with Mazrachi and Curtis’ showdown, but some less hearty readers might find themselves worried that Harper Curtis will step out of the past and come looking for them.