Girls get murdered all the fucking time.

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

I’m sick of serial killers. Serial killers are what we replaced our monsters with. We don’t believe in ghosts or goblins, so we looked to our real life monsters and gave them mythic qualities.

On TV and film serial killers are often brilliant, geniuses even. Sometimes they’re superhumanly strong, sometimes charming. Their victims are generally attractive young women with good jobs, women the audience can relate to and sympathise with. It’s rare a serial killer in fiction is a social inadequate preying on the marginalised because then the whole thing just becomes too ugly for a Saturday night’s entertainment.

Lauren Beukes is an intelligent writer, one who couldn’t write formula if she tried. When she writes a novel featuring a serial killer then it’s no surprise that the result is interesting and well written. In The Shining Girls she uses the familiar figure of the serial killer to make a wider point about how society crushes women who stand out, the murderer as an extreme manifestation of something that happens every day. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

ShiningGirls

The Shining Girls is high-concept. Harper Curtis is a drifter in Chicago in 1931, a despicable wretch of a man, weak and full of petty hate. His crimes are about to catch up on him when he discovers a house, the house, and the house exists outside of time.

He goes to the window to pull the curtains shut, but not before he glimpses the tableau outside.

The houses across the way change. The paint strips away, recolors itself, strips away again through snow and sun and trash tangled with leaves blowing down the street. Windows are broken, boarded over, spruced up with a vase of flowers that turn brown and fall away. The empty lot becomes overgrown, fills over with cement, grass grows through the cracks in wild tufts, rubbish congeals, the rubbish is removed, it comes back, along with aggressive snarls of writing on the walls in vicious colors. A hopscotch grid appears, disappears in the sleeting rain, moves elsewhere, snaking across the cement. A couch rots through seasons and then catches fire.

He yanks the curtains closed, and turns and sees it. Finally. His destiny spelled out in this room.

Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.

When Harper finds the house there’s a dead body in the hallway, a recently murdered man. There’s a suitcase full of money, but some of the notes are wrong and the issue dates haven’t happened yet. When he looks out the window he looks out on different Chicagos, and when he opens the front door he can walk out into them. He can walk out into any time between 1929 and 1993. He goes out in 1993 to dump the body far from his own time, and finds a corpse he recognises from his own time already stuck in his chosen hiding place. A cleverer man might wonder how that was possible, but Harper isn’t that man.

In 1992 Kirby Mazrachi is a young woman who some years back survived a terrifying and brutal assault. She was disembowelled and had her throat slashed, but her attacker hadn’t planned on her dog trying to save her and ended up having to flee the scene, leaving her for dead. Now she’s an intern with a burnt-out former crime reporter, Dan Velasquez, who’s now working the sports desk for the Chicago Sun-Times. When Dan meets her for the first time he sees her as:

a girl barely out of kindergarten, surely, with crazy kindergarten hair sticking up all over the place, a multicolored striped scarf looped around her neck with matching fingerless gloves, a black jacket with more zips than is conceivably practical, and worse, an earring in her nose. She irritates him on principle.

He’s even less happy when he works out she’s only doing the intern job so she can get inside dirt on her own story, a story he worked on back on the day.

Ok, maybe Beukes can write a little formula when she tries. Kirby and Dan are pretty familiar sorts of characters. Still, there’s enough originality in the time travel concept that it’s probably for the best if some of the other architecture of the story is a little more standard.

Kirby and Dan soon realise that her attack wasn’t the first. That doesn’t surprise them, but what does is the discovery that similar crimes are spread out over the past six decades. Slowly they come to realise they’re dealing with something much stranger than just another serial killer.

Meanwhile, back in 1931, Harper has found his trophy room in the house; the artifacts in the quote above. Each item is something he took as a souvenir from one of his killings, except that when he first sees them he hasn’t yet committed those crimes. The house though is outside of time, the souvenirs he’ll take are already on the wall before he’s taken them, are always on the wall both as markers of what he did and instructions of what he must do.

He picks up a piece of chalk that is lying on the mantel and writes on the wallpaper beside the window, because there is a space for it and it seems he must. He prints ‘Glowgirl’ in his jagged sloping script, over the ghost of the word that is already there.

Although it sounds it, this isn’t really a science fiction novel. The house is never explained (though it follows an absolutely clear logic in how it works); Harper isn’t bright enough to ask questions and his obsessions are too strong to really let him examine the house’s implications. The house simply is, and it’s never explicitly stated whether it’s directing Harper or, as I interpret it, reflecting back to him his own future decisions. What the house does though is let Harper pick his victims through history, and therefore let Beukes range through history showing different women in different parts of Chicago’s past.

The house is one unusual aspect to this novel. The other is Beukes’ focus on the victims. Her attention here isn’t so much on the beautiful corpse, as on the beautiful life brutally cut short.

Harper picks his victims when they’re young, selecting girls who have a spark in them, who seem special. He calls it a glow. When he’s found a girl who glows for him he comes back when she’s grown up and kills her, snuffs out her light. As Beukes shows each woman’s life though it’s soon apparent that Harper isn’t the only one who sees a shining girl and wants to smother her. Harper is a metaphor for how our society treats women more generally, how women who stand out are cut back, forced to blend in for safety.

Beukes is keen too to show that these women don’t exist in a vacuum. They have families, friends, lovers, children. Their deaths ripple out. Here’s an example:

The dead girl’s name was Julia Madrigal. She was twenty-one. She was studying at Northwestern. Economics. She liked hiking and hockey, because she was originally from Banff, Canada, and hanging out in the bars along Sheridan Road with her friends, because Evanston was dry.

She kept meaning to sign up to volunteer to read textbook passages for the blind students association’s study tapes, but never quite got round to it, the same way she’d bought a guitar but only mastered one chord. She was running for head of her sorority. She always said she was going to be the first woman CEO of Goldman Sachs. She had plans to have three kids and a big house and a husband who did something interesting and complementary – a surgeon or a broker or something. Not like Sebastian, who was a good-time guy, but not exactly marriage material.

She was too loud, like her dad, especially at parties. Her sense of humor tended to be crass. Her laugh was notorious or legendary, depending on who was telling. You could hear it from the other side of Alpha Phi. She could be annoying. She could be narrow-minded in that got-all-the-answers-to-save-the-world way. But she was the kind of girl you couldn’t keep down. Unless you cut her up and caved in her skull.

Her father will never recover. His weight drops away until he becomes a wan parody of the loud and opinionated estate agent who would pick a fight at the barbecue about the game. He loses all interest in selling houses. He tapers off mid-sales pitch, looking at the blank spaces on the wall between the perfect family portraits or worse, at the grouting between the tiles of the en-suite bathroom. He learns to fake it, to clamp the sadness down. At home, he starts cooking. He teaches himself French cuisine. But all food tastes bland to him.

Her mother draws the pain into herself: a monster she keeps caged in her chest that can only be subdued with vodka. She does not eat her husband’s cooking. When they move back to Canada and downsize the house, she relocates into the spare room. Eventually, he stops hiding her bottles. When her liver seizes up twenty years later, he sits next to her in a Winnipeg hospital and strokes her hand and narrates recipes he’s memorized like scientific formula because there is nothing else to say.

Her sister moves as far away as she can, and keeps moving, first across the state, then across the country, then overseas to become an au pair in Portugal. She is not a very good au pair. She doesn’t bond with the children. She is too terrified that something might happen to them.

The passage continues. It explores the impact on Julia’s boyfriend, on her best friend, on a girl across town that Julia never met who only reads about the case. It’s powerful stuff. I went for such a long quote because this is the heart of the book. The time travel stuff is taut, logically worked through and entirely internally consistent, but Julia and the other women like her in the book shine, which of course is the point.

The women though are also why the book in the end doesn’t work for me. How do you read that passage above, and read too the forensically detailed description of how she was killed and how Harper makes his victims suffer and the joy he takes from that, and then enjoy a tale of a determined young woman and her worn-down sidekick bravely tracking down a time-travelling murderer? It’s too much horror for such a story. Beukes wants to show that horror, she wants to show how terrible this is and how much of a loss these women’s lives are. The problem is that she succeeds.

So in the end I come full circle, back to where I started this review. The Shining Girls is interesting and well written. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

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17 Comments

Filed under Beukes, Lauren, Crime, SF

17 responses to “Girls get murdered all the fucking time.

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I *so* agree! I’m sick to death of gruesome murders of women – I’ve pretty much given up reading contemporary crime novels because of the brutality against females. It isn’t necessary and it ruins the story – I want plot and mystery and intelligence – not gore. Thank you for your excellent review.

  2. Great synopsis of why this book didn’t sit well with me. Though I suppose – as you point out – the author is reflecting back something very accurate about our world. Girls who shine too bright get cut down.

  3. You know I enjoy a good crime tale, but I’m OD’d on the brutality of some of these crime books. I have to agree with your statement that this is:
    “still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader”

    I can’t remember exactly when it happened but I read a crime book with some teenage girls locked in the basement by some crazed sex maniac. It was a page turner, no argument there, but I started to get the sensation that I had to hurry the book in order to set them free–every time I put the book down, it was as though I was leaving them to their fate.
    I decided to screen my crime books more carefully and avoid the really ghastly scenarios (typically the sort you mention here). There are so many good crime books out there. Plenty to chose from.
    Incidentally, just reading the blurb of this book, I would have avoided it. It’s not always so easy to tell though. I’ll often read goodread reviews-the ones with spoilers–and I’ve avoided many a book that way–(including ones with vampires and zombies–both crop up far too often).

  4. Great piece, Max, and very timely given that series two of The Fall is about to start on Thursday. The Shining Girls sounds so different to Zoo City. Our book group read Zoo and everyone loved it (one of our rare clean sweeps). So much so that we were all interested to read more by Beukes. Interestingly though, the woman who chose Zoo is the only member of our group to have read TSG and her response was similar to yours. I’m now veering towards Moxyland as my next by Beukes, especially given your review. Thanks for this piece.

  5. Kaggsy, quite. it’s the ubiquity that puts me off it. If it weren’t so common I wouldn’t have an issue with it, every subject is suitable for fiction, but when it’s a go-to method for injecting threat and drama it becomes pointless and unpleasant.

    Now, to be fair that is part of Beukes’ point here. By showing the lives she is in part consciously redressing the balance, showing more than the corpse as I said above. That said, for me ultimately it doesn’t work because the corpse is still there, but it’s certainly not merely exploitative here.

    Tigerlounge, the fact she’s right in some ways makes it worse I think. If Beukes were a worse writer then seeing these women get cut down wouldn’t matter, because we wouldn’t believe in them anyway. By making them live though she gives their deaths weight, which is of course part of her intent, but then that gets into the structural issue that now they have weight I don’t want to read about those deaths for my entertainment. Glad the review chimed with your experience.

    Guy, I think I remember you mentioning that experience before. It sounds fairly horrible actually. Some of the Raymond Carver’s go to a level of disgust that is genuinely horrifying (his I Was Dora Suarez is still the only book I can think of that made me feel actually nauseous), but he means to disgust the reader – it’s not just titillation.

    One thing I would say is that on its face the time travel aspect here would I suspect put some people off, but actually it works very well. As I said in the review, this isn’t an SF novel. It’s a crime novel with an SFnal element that’s intrinsic, but that doesn’t overbear the book.

    Jacqui, thanks, despite my comments I still plan to watch The Fall (not that I’ve watched season one yet) as it has a great cast. I do though have a much higher threshold in terms of required quality before I’ll go near that kind of material though.

    It’s interesting re Zoo City, which I loved. I’d like Beukes to write more South African SF, or just South African fiction generally. It’s an interesting place and the US has an awful lot of people already writing very well about it. I wouldn’t want her though to write to my tastes, that’s what I’d like but what I want is that she writes whatever she wants to write. It’s just the US crime stuff doesn’t appeal to me as much as some of her earlier work.

    Moxyland’s flawed, but it is good. Not as good as Zoo City admittedly, but as I saw Beukes say in an interview once it would be depressing if it were as good as it would suggest she hadn’t improved between her first and second books.

  6. This is a traditionally published book? Some of the writing in your excerpts above just isn’t very good. Starting three sentences in a row with ‘She’? The paragraphs beginning with ‘Her father will never recover’ could have been interesting if they’d been fleshed out more, rather than dealt with in such summary fashion. Has the author not heard the maxim ‘show don’t tell’? If you’re going to bring in the victims’ families, at least do it properly.

    As for blending two of the most over-used concepts in literature, time travel AND serial killers, Jesus wept, I wouldn’t touch the book even if I had latex gloves on.

    I think there is an argument for censoring books about serial killers, purely on the basis that if the author can’t be bothered to think up something more original, they don’t deserve to have their books available to the public.

  7. Yup, traditionally published and a very good seller I think. It’s her third novel. The fourth has also done pretty well, but I haven’t read it. She’s one of those authors who seem to be making the mysterious leap to mass popularity, I see her stuff advertised on tube (subway) platforms which generally indicates a level of readership (or at least potential readership) most authors can’t even dream of.

    I think the she, she, she works here, though I take your point. The book’s already several hundred pages long, so I’m not sure I’d want her to flesh these people out more, besides she has more than one victim to get through and if she did that the book would become about that family, become a different book.

    Is time travel over-used? Serial killers I’m with you, but time travel less so. Admittedly though it does seem to be cropping up out of SF more and more so you may be right (I don’t think one can complain about time travel within SF, it’s a genre staple, it’d be a bit like complaining of aliens in SF).

    Beukes has found a wide readership, and I’d be delighted if some of the many people who loved this book turned up to make some counterpoints. There’s a limit to how much I can make points in its favour given it didn’t ultimately work for me, but it did work for many others. I think Tomcat has read it of tomcatintheredroom so hopefully he’ll drop by as he really knows his stuff in this area.

  8. ” think the she, she, she works here, though I take your point”

    I’ve just recently seen a Year 9 pupil told off by Miss for the exact same thing so I guess that was at the forefront of my mind.

    Don’t think me uncharitable. I don’t get any enjoyment from knocking fellow writers. They’ve worked years at their projects, and I know what that’s like. I just homed in on some stuff in the excerpts there that made me think ‘Hang on, this is basic stuff, how come I didn’t get a book deal and she did?’ Bitter, moi?

    I feel a bit of a hypocrite, having been glued to ‘The Fall’ tonight, yet agreeing 100% with your original sentiment: “girls get murdered all the fucking time”. However, I do feel that show has been particularly well written and is way beyond your average another-dead-girl stuff. It explores the theme of women trusting men they shouldn’t, or even being attracted to men despite the full knowledge they are a physical threat. I do fear for the 15-year old girl, bless her. If I had a daughter that age I would not find it comfortable viewing.

    Sorry, gone off topic a bit. I guess this thread was supposed to be about Lauren Beukes’s beuk (works in a scouse accent).

    ps – Aliens in SF? That’ll never catch on…

  9. fromcouchtomoon

    Love your title. Love your post. Love the discussion it generated. Consider me a new loyal subscriber.

  10. sendra

    Think I’ll give this one a miss, Max. It really is always women and I’m a little tired of it. Whether it’s an unlikely genius or a deeply bent loser, it’s a subject that becomes grimly mundane on the news and both horrid and unimaginative in fiction. Also the time travel just has to undermine any weighty intentions on the author’s part. You make an interesting point though. Ubiquity is almost a bigger turn-off than the woman-as-bloody- body ‘entertainment value’. There are bigger and smaller monsters that pose more involving questions in regards to violence against women. Boko Haram or the wife-beater next door.

  11. Max, one other thought on this before I forget. Have you read Michel Faber’s Under the Skin? If not, you might find it an interesting contrast to The Shining Girls. Jonathan Glazer’s film is excellent too and more of a riff on some of the themes from the book (as opposed to a straight adaptation). Again you may have seen it but if not, highly recommended.

  12. Pingback: In the Media: 16th November 2014 | The Writes of Woman

  13. Mary K Gilbert

    I completely agree with you. It’s heartening to read your comments and those of the other contributors. I don’t read books like this anymore though I used to enjoy thrillers. It’s the same with many TV programmes too. I thought The Killing was brilliant in many ways but felt complicit in applauding something that focused so closely on the torture and murder of a young girl

  14. Sean, at least now when the year 9 pupil gets published she can point Miss to Lauren Beukes and show it’s a form with precedent…

    I have no idea why one person gets a book deal and another not. Beukes deserved hers, but there’s plenty of writers who also deserve them who don’t. I thought your criticism fair though, it’s a published work so it’s up for being critiqued like any other published work and we don’t have to agree on every bit of it (it would be dull if we did).

    I plan to watch The Fall, so I’m a hypocrite with you if that’s what that means. Execution though is everything isn’t it? In a way here Beukes is a victim of her own success. She means to make the deaths unpleasant, uncomfortable, and for me she succeeded so well that it put me off the book. The Fall I suspect personalises the victims less and spends less time exploring fallout, though I could well be wrong on that. Plus it has Gillian Anderson who is just very good and probably elevates any material she’s working with.

    Fromcouchtomoon (great name), thanks!

    Sendra, quite, though I’d defend the time travel element which on its own terms actually works very well. Still, I came out in the same place as you overall as you see.

    Jacqui, no though I liked the film. I debated it a bit with Lee Monks I think who reviewed it at themookseandthegripes. I was very impressed by it.

    Mary, thanks, I used to enjoy them too and I don’t condemn those who still do (my tastes shouldn’t dictate others, and may change again after all). It’s the complicity issue you touch on. As I said to Sean, I’m a hypocrite since I plan to watch The Fall, but pure lines are hard to draw. It’s not that I’ll never read or watch this material (I read this), it’s more that increasingly I don’t enjoy it and don’t really want to be part of the market for it.

    For all that, I still plan to read Beukes’ next even though it again features a serial killer. I like her as a writer, even if I’m less fond of her current interests as a writer.

  15. Somehow I missed this review.

    “I’m sick of serial killers” me too, just like I’m sick of novels set during WWII. I avoid crime fiction with serial killers not necessarily for the same reasons as you. (although they’re perfectly valid) I prefer crime fiction with murderers who are not sick bastards but “normal” people who, placed in a certain situation, a certain position, unleash the dark side we all have in ourselves.

    Sorry you didn’t like it, especially since you have so little time to read.

    Selfishly, I’ll say that the good news is that this review will not make my TBR grow! 🙂

  16. There has been a lot of press around this book (possibly because of the shining reference??) but I’m rather curious. However, when I know, going in, that a book includes violence against women, I hesitate. When I heard that Big Driver (Stephen King) was turned into a tv movie, I just couldn’t watch it… or read the short story, for that matter. Anything to do with rape makes my stomach turn.

    I’d rather watch Dateline. It’s real, and at least has some form of justice at the end.

  17. Emma, there really is no greater service one blogger can do for another than to put them off a book, given how large our various TBR piles are. Glad to oblige.

    If I liked everything I read it would suggest I was being too conservative in my reading.

    Literary, this certainly does include very graphic violence, but part of the point of it isn’t merely exploitative but to show the horror of it and the consequences that flow from it. As I said though, it’s success in doing that is what led to it not quite working for me, as I couldn’t quite enjoy the thriller elements after the victims had been made into real women in that way.

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