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How’s this for a teaser: Time traveling serial killer meets the girl who won’t die.

I may have mentioned here that I like scary stories even when they’re not straight horror. What I really like is being surprised because often they tread familiar ground, which I don’t mind so long as it’s well done, but new ground is gold. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is a thriller with an original-ish twist that sounded promising.

shining girls

1931. Harper is a crummy human being who doesn’t think twice about killing a blind woman for her coat. He’s just the person The House needs. It draws him in with the subtlety of blinking neon lights. His future victims have long been chosen though they’ve not yet been born. The identities of girls who shine, girls with the most life in them, are laid out like constellations. Mementos from their future murders fill a whole room.

Kirby is a child in the 1970’s when she first encounters the creepy man. He gives her a plastic horse and tells her to hold on to it. Her first mistake is that she does. On a day when her dog goes silent in the woods, not running when she has the chance is her second. She survives the first brutal attack and maybe she was always going to; it seems they’re caught in a loop. The plot gets traction when Kirby, a few years later, begins investigating her case and finding strange similarities to other cases dating way back.

Then he went to hang the wings on the bed post. Where the wings were already hanging on the bed post.

Beukes puts the power of time travel in the hands of a bad man and I was curious to see what would happen. What I missed from this potential science fiction element was some science to put what’s happening with the house in some context beyond “Wouldn’t it be scary if…”. My interest waned, but I kept reading.

The story alternates between Harper and Kirby. It’s savage murderer of women versus future victim slash obsessive survivor intent on finding her would-be killer. There is no mystery for the reader, but it’s interesting to watch Kirby piece things together. Since the victims are victims because they’re full of potential, they are naturally the kind of characters you care about instantly. I kept hoping maybe the loop could change, maybe the women from different times and circumstances could somehow help each other survive the next time around.

Then it ended and I thought maybe I’d accidentally skipped 100 pages. I hate that. Leaves a bad taste in my reading no matter how promising I found the idea.

A popular book when it came out last year, for me this fell flat. Though it has an intriguing concept, the time travel element felt like a cheap plot device in an otherwise brutal and not fun to read crime story. If we spent more time in the house trying to understand not necessarily how (though that would’ve been good, too), but at least why, I probably would’ve been more engaged. In a word I’d describe this as interesting, but I wouldn’t use an exclamation mark.