Reading a brand new book with no reviews about it yet written isn’t something I normally do unless it’s a much anticipated release. However, the description of The Shining Girls made it sound like something I simply couldn’t pass up. I had it pre-ordered to be delivered to my Kindle and patiently awaited its arrival. With a tagline like “The girl who wouldn’t die hunting a killer who couldn’t exist”, it already throws up a multitude of questions and frankly, I needed them answered.
Having never heard of South African writer Lauren Beukes before, The Shining Girls could well be her breakthrough novel. Set in Chicago during the Depression era initially, a violent and enigmatic man Harper Curtis finds himself at the clutches of a house with doors that open onto other times. After selecting his “shining girls”, he carves their names into the wall and makes it his twisted mission to snuff the light out of all of them, leaving tokens from another victim at each murder scene. Kirby is the one girl who manages to escape his horrific attack alive and as a feisty, trainee reporter, she makes it her mission to track down the man who tried to kill her. However, that becomes much more difficult than she could ever have imagined.
Beukes seems to be able to craft characters perfectly. From the sheer depravity of Harper to the eager ambition of Kirby and the tragic lovesickness of Dan, the ex-crime reporter who Kirby interns for, everyone within the story comes across clearly and by the end of the book, it’s almost like you know everyone personally. Each of the shining girls has a talent and their deaths are sincerely felt by the reader as deep losses. Investing so much emotion into a book can be dangerous if the outcome isn’t what you want and it’s a risk you take when you begin reading.
The saddest part is the realisation that the book is in fact a metaphor for the oppression of women by men during 1930s America. Harper has the stereotypical male attitude and only appears to be interested in sex and violence. This view is what drives him to selectively kill women who have everything to live for. The girls are real human beings with no supernatural or spiritual powers -they are known as “the shining girls” because they are good at something and have the power to make something of their lives. Having it prematurely cut short by a misogynistic, maniacal man has so much historical symbolism in it and by the end of the book, I couldn’t get away from this revelation.
With this book being published now by a female writer in an apparently more liberal time, it could well be a social commentary on the ways in which women are still oppressed. Stories of women receiving lower pay and fewer job opportunities than their male counterparts are still very much commonplace in today’s world, so this view still has some resonance. Putting it into a sci-fi thriller definitely gives it a different spin and perhaps suggests that even in escapism literature like The Shining Girls certainly is, these issues still exist.