When you love authors who are no longer in the land of the living, you are faced with the terrible, sad fact that no matter how much you love them, they will never, ever write another book for you to read. Those books already on your shelf, they’re all you’ll get. (The same applies to beloved film directors, music makers, and other artists whose artistic endeavours smash your face in with the awesome.) So it is always a small happiness to love authors who are still alive, because even if they write nothing for decades, you can still cling to the tiny hope that they are just working up to the very best thing they have ever done ever.
And now I have no doubt caused you all to worry that Lauren Beukes is dead. Rest easy, friends. Not only is she not dead, she went and wrote another book for us! Because she is an author who is alive and that is what authors do for readers. The system is nice like that. But when you have a beloved author who is still alive and still writing, you have to face a similarly disappointing truth: you might not like what they write next. And I find myself in that weird place now.
I loved Zoo City; it continues to pop up in my brain to puzzle over months after reading it. I was less enamoured with Moxyland, but I chalked that up to the fact that it was her debut and she was still finding her novelist legs. And given that Zoo City was so much better in so many ways than Moxyland, I really had high hopes for The Shining Girls. I even pre-ordered it from my local bookstore (support your authors, preorder their new books!) (not from Amazon!) and put it on the top of Mount Bookstoberead when it arrived. So this may in fact be the timeliest post I have ever written; it actually just came out last week (in Canada) whereas most everything I read here has been out for ages and ages.
Although I make a point of never reading anything about a book I want to read before I read it (this also applies to movies and music and other art I am looking forward to engaging with), I couldn’t help but catch the tagline on the inside of the jacket flap as I opened the book to devour it: “The girl who wouldn’t die hunts the killer who shouldn’t exist.” For real. The girl in question is Kirby and the killer is Harper. I’m not really spoiling anything for you when I tell you that Harper is a time-travelling serial killer. He hooks up with this creepy House in the 1930s and realizes his destiny is to kill girls with a special spark, something extra that makes them shine to him. And so he ventures here and there in time, from 1929 to 1993, to find them, play with them, and kill them.
It’s set pretty much entirely in Chicago, which is new for Beukes. Her last two books have taken place in South Africa, so the shift to Chicago seemed pretty sudden and crazy to me, and was definitely something I was curious about. It turns out she didn’t want to set it in South Africa because she would have had to deal with apartheid and that’s not what the book was about. Which is actually a very valid reason to move the book somewhere else. Especially given that her previous works directly played with apartheid and its impact on South Africa. It’s understandable that she would want to turn her focus on others issues, although class and race still make their appearance in The Shining Girls as well.
Obviously, Beukes is a great writer with a serious talent for dialogue and giving her readers insight into her characters in unexpected ways. Like this bit: “Like that bullshit book about the tree that self-sacrifices and self-sacrifices until it’s so much graffiti-ed rotting wood on a park bench. Kirby always hated that story.” This is shortly followed by an assessment of her relationship with her freewheeling mom, Rachel: “It’s impossible to push her mother away, Kirby thinks, letting the crumble of sticks fall from her numbed fingers onto the snow. Her default state of being is absent.” Just these two short passages and I have so much Kirby in my head, a sense of her past, who she is now, and how she got that way.
The other main characters get an equal amount of love so when all the things go down, you are invested in these people. One problem I had was that a lot of other characters are introduced and I wasn’t nearly invested in any of them. Obviously, they’re not the focus of the story, but the story and the perspectives employed in depicting them indicate that I’m meant to care about them, and I really didn’t. I guess this is fine if they just got their fifteen minutes and then disappeared from the novel (although that also is not awesome), but given the time-travelling nature of the story, these people are referenced throughout and I could never remember who was who, necessitating page-flipping to refresh my memory.
But my biggest issue with this book is not that I didn’t care about the bit players, but the fact that I just did not care at all. I even debated writing about this book at all since I try to turn my focus on works that I truly enjoy. And it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it: it’s clever and complicated with interesting characters and an interesting setting, Beukes is a great writer and always a pleasure to spend some time with. It just fell flat for me. When I turned the last page, my thought was “huh” rather than “wait!”. Everything is neatly tied up. (The House is never really explained, but a house that allows you to pass through time probably doesn’t need to be explained. You just accept it in a book like this.) There was nothing left to really wonder about. The book did not live in my head for days after I finished it. And I wanted it to. I wanted to still be really ruminating on it now, a week later. I want to want to go back to page one and start the whole adventure again. I did with Zoo City. I even did with Moxyland. I sadly did not with The Shining Girls.