Dec 11, 2017

Lauren Beukes' "The Shining Girls" - An Epistolary Review

Excerpts of a digital correspondance between Walter Phippeny and Inci German

This review contains spoilers.


When I first started into The Shining Girls, I was ready for the book equivalent of a pop-corn movie: something dumb that you could just enjoy, passing over you without much of demand. Unlike a book like Too Like the Lightening, I could tell right away that this story wasn't going to touch on 18th century philosophers, or throw a bunch of languages at me. This was going to be murder, and thrills. And I was not disappointed. It was very much that. But it also surprised me by being smarter than I had expected. The story gripped me and I read it avidly to the end. It fluctuated back and forth between light fare, and something a little smarter. So, I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the things that Beukes really succeeded at was pulling off the different time periods. We have a time span between 1929 and 1993, some 64 years. In the 90s parts, she snuck in some small touches that really brought me back to that time. For example, when the character Chet is trying to get Kirby to read a comic book about a woman hiding from trauma, I immediately knew what he was talking about, just from the description. At no point does Chet actually mention the title. The comic was called "The Maxx" and they turned it into animated series on MTV. Here's a link to what I'm talking about: These little aspects brought me back to that time, and they succeeded at invoking this period in my mind. That's effective writing! I've read things before about people in the 80s or 90s, but nothing that really woke that time back up in me: indirect references rather than direct. Chet could have name dropped the title "The Maxx" and I would have known what he was talking about, but he didn't do that. Chet described the story without mentioning the name once; and through the story my own memories of the thing were evoked, and it made the reference WAY stronger in me.

There's a lot of gender stuff going on in this book, too. I would go so far as to say that the relationship between Kirby and Harper is a metaphor for the general violence of men against women. The chapter with the abortion activist seems like Beukes is trying to bring awareness to what women have been going through in this 64 year span. The inclusion of Alice brings in the Trans story. I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

But there are problems...

Harper feels like a very thin villain to me. There are many aspects about Harper that feel like ticks on a check list. For example, he's a psychopath, so he needs to have tortured animals when he was child... because that's what psychopaths do. At first, we get the feeling that he has become this way because of the horrors of World War One, but, through flashbacks, we see that his psychopathy was there from the beginning. We get to see a lot from his perspective and through his memories. I think this is a mistake, because it should remain more of a mystery. When you shine light on it, it obviously doesn't make any sense, when it would make sense to Harper himself. Crazy people are sure that they're full of sense. Harper is a villain because the story needs a villain, and his villainy is accounted for in a very methodical fashion. I would rather that we, either don't see the story so much from Harper's perspective, or, that his perspective is far more convincing about making us believe that there's logic in what he's doing. I want to see his conviction and believe it.

The dialog. I've got to mention this, but the dialog, especially between Kirby and Dan, was cringe worthy for me. It was full of cliches and flat jokes that just made me groan.

Also, I can see the three act structure in the book. Near the end, we get a sudden fight between Kirby and the paper and a falling out with Dan because we are at the third act of the play and our heroine needs to fall to her lowest. This draws me out of the story. Characters are fighting and I know that they're fighting because they have to fight to create drama at this point in the narrative. It comes off as weak story telling. Again, ticking off boxes on a checklist.

So, in the end, I would say that I liked the book, and would recommend it. There are issues, but they were issues that I was willing to overlook, because other parts of the story telling were done so well.



As to me, I actually don't like this book. I sympathize with what Beukes is trying to do by touching the lives of all those women but the plot didn't grip me at all. I think the writing is very flat and I had the impression it was written to be made into a netflix or TV show. I made a quick research and guess what? Leonardo di Caprio's production company has already bought the rights... meeeh.

There's definitely a gender thing going on, BUT all of it is kind of old really. [What I didn't write to Walter but should have written: Not that I mind the use of allegedly outdated themes, no. But looking at online reviews I had the impression many readers were amazed by this "revolutionary" idea of combining slasher with science fiction and that's why I revealed that there's nothing new here. The concept of the "final girl" outsmarting the villain used to counterbalance the violence done to women is nothing new nor revolutionary; I didn't think Kirby stood out, really. If anything, she survives by pure chance and not because of any personal achievement. All of the girls fight back, not only Kirby. She's just lucky enough she was walking her dog who protected her from Harper's attack.

To be honest I also fail to see anything science fiction in this story because it has no scientific claim whatsoever. The house (is it a portal? is it a blackhole? or pure magic?) is just there and enables time travel (an SF topic, I have to add, that never really appealed to me). Why? Where does it come from? Who has built it? Did it choose Harper or is the course of events Harper's doing?]

What Beukes says in the interview at the end of the book about wanting to debunk the myth of the sophisticated serial killer as in Hannibal - that's already been bunked and debunked millions of times! From Jason Vorhees to Mike Myers they all are unlikeable brutes! I had no particular feelings toward Harper, just with any other character here - I just didn't care if they die or stay.

I have honestly tried but this book bored me really.



I completely agree that the violence arrives in a way that makes it seem like Harper is chopping wood, or knocking down an old wall. The prose is like distanced, objective reporting. There's a lot in this book that feels like a check list getting ticked off: psycho - check; strong female protagonist - check; grizzly scenes of murder - check; creepy supernatural elements - check; struggle between the main characters in the third act - check; a trans-gender character to show that our story is progressive - check. Just shake, bake, and sell to Netflix.

And then there's more about Harper himself. Beukes tries to show how emotionally involved Harper is because he's sexually aroused. I found that kind of boring and cheap: "Oh, he must be really into this because he's got a hard on!" This is the danger of showing the reader the intimate workings of your villain's mind: if you can't make me believe with great acumen about the inner workings of this kind of mind, then don't try. Harper would have been much more threatening if I didn't know about his brother's accident, his hard ons, his worries, etc. What makes Leather Face, Jason, and Micheal Myers so threatening is exactly their inhumanity; we have no idea what's going on in their minds, and we can't relate to them. They are a true strangers whose motives we can not know. They are killing machines, and you can't argue, or invoke sympathy, with a machine.

But, a book like this can be a guilty pleasure. It's dumb, but then it suddenly surprises you by doing something clever. The pacing is done pretty well and carried me along. I kept reading, hoping that the clever things would add up and that we would see some kind of transformation at the end, that the reason for the time travel and the obsession with these particular girls would be revealed to be something very unique. The idea that the story is an ouroboros -- these characters are doomed, stuck in this loop of time, constantly playing out the same drama, forever -- well...that's kind of cool. Too bad that the reason for this doom is kind of lame. People die all the time! Why is Harper's death from being shot in the face so special that it creates a time-loop in the fabric of reality? Is Harper a secret necromancer, or parodaxomancer? Were they magic, time-bullets that penetrate your body in four dimensions? Beukes had a chance here to do something interesting, but she kind of dropped the ball.

Still, I stand by what I said. It's a good attempt and DOES do enough things well that it pleasantly surprised me.

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