London isn’t the warmest place at the moment and it’s starting to feel a bit like summer might never really get going. This meant that I read Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls’ with an odd sense of jealousy. Yes, the characters might be the abused members of a murderous commune (based on the Manson family), but they do at least live in California and the action takes place during the stiflingly long, hot summer of 1969.
It is during this summer that the desperately adolescent Evie Boyd becomes enraptured with a cult/commune, a theoretically liberated enclave which offers her an alternative way of exploring her burgeoning womanhood. Dissatisfied with her divorced parents, her conventional ‘best friend’ and some frustratingly fumbling attempts at romance, she sees life with this renegade group of teenagers as an opportunity to escape her own lack of direction. On the one hand, she is drawn to ‘the girls’ because of their confidence and freedom from the mainstream society that constricts her. On the other hand, one girl in particular promises a far more exciting and fulfilling relationship than any of Evie’s detached heterosexual encounters. A split time structure allows Evie’s older self to reflect on this life-changing summer, but given the trauma it contains, this does not mean that the horrific events themselves can ever be fully rationalised.
It’s become something of a running joke that books with ‘girl’ in the title seem to be doing very well at the moment. Personally, apart from the highly enjoyable ‘Gone Girl’ (reviewed here), I’ve yet to read many of them; frankly, despite the ubiquitous sans-serif font, I find it hard to class Cline’s debut with the majority of this sub-genre. This is mostly because of the writing style, which is determinedly literary. Evie’s hazy and drug-addled recollections of her entry into her new friends’ world focusses on detailed observations rather than on dramatic actions. She notices ‘the fumes of cruciferous vegetables, rotting in plastic bags‘, even when relaxing she’s self-conscious as only a teenager can be: ‘I tried to settle back into repose, my waiting as formalised as a troubadour’s.’
The novel’s content is deliberately provocative, referencing the Manson murders and drawing miserable conclusions about the place of young women in society, then and now. This doesn’t mean the girls themselves are seen as blameless: ‘later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.’ A perennial outsider, Evie is well placed to observe modern American society in all its seedy glamour. As you would expect given the book’s title, her obsession with gender, age and innocence is enduring, and neatly ties together the split time structure.
Overall, ‘The Girls’ is an ambitious debut, one that will attract or alienate readers based on their response to the sensual, stylised prose. I’m grateful that it allowed me to escape from the grey of the English summer, but I suspect that it will mean considerably more for readers who really click with the tone (such as those at Random House who won the bidding war, paying out a seven figure sum for ‘The Girls’ as part a three-book deal). A recommended read if you want to keep up with the most hotly-anticipated publications of the season.
I received my copy of ‘The Girls’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.