The Girls, the debut novel by Emma Cline,was perhaps the most hotly anticipated novel of the summer. As recommendations from Lena Dunham, Mark Haddon and countless others rolled in, film rights to the novel were secured even before its publication, and a bidding war between publishers secured Cline’s position as literature’s ‘next big thing’. So could the novel live up to the hype? After spotting a copy in my local library I decided to find out for myself.
Set in the Californian summer of 1969, the novel follows Evie Boyd, a teenage girl who is struggling to make sense of the world and finds herself part of a dangerous cult made up almost entirely of young girls. The girls are controlled by a charismatic leader named Russell, a figure based on Charles Manson, who preyed on the vulnerable before recruiting them for his ‘ranch’. As Evie claims, Russell
‘had put me through a series of ritual tests… Already he’d become an expert in female sadness – a particular slump in the shoulders, a nervous rash. A subservient lilt at the end of sentences, eyelashes gone soggy from crying. Russell did the same to me that he did to those girls. … But maybe the strangest part – I liked it too.’
As the novel progresses, we begin to see the extent of Russell’s influence over Evie and the other girls. While I can see that many will be drawn to read this novel out of a fascination with the enigma of ‘the cult’ I think the real draw is Cline’s ability to portray female adolescence and the vulnerability and self-consciousness that comes along with it. As the older Evie says, ‘just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself’.
Evie was lonely: her parents were separated and wrapped up in their own love lives; her best friend has abandoned her; she was due to move away to boarding school and she was struggling to make sense of her burgeoning sexuality. When Evie spots Suzanne, one of the girls from Russell’s ranch, her life changes as she finally feels part of something. Russell was never her real reason for joining the group at the ranch: ‘There was a girl. It was more her than Russell.’
The way that Evie worships Suzanne is beautifully written, and as she follows her around, desperate for approval, we feel her loneliness even more acutely. But we also see how this friendship is treasured, and when Suzanne gives Evie the attention she craves, the depth of feeling it invokes is something that even Cline cannot quite put into words:
‘No one had ever looked at me before Suzanne, not really, so she had become my definition. … We had been with the men, we had let them do what they wanted. But they would never know the parts of ourselves that we hid from them – they would never sense the lack or even know there was something more they should be looking for.’
The ‘mystery’ of femininity and adolescent female sexuality has often been portrayed as dangerous. Cline plays on these fears by recreating the Manson murders in the novel, with the girls carrying out a brutal murder rather than Russell. After they were tried and later imprisoned, Evie comments on public’s perceptions: ‘the girls were mythic .. Suzanne got the worst of it. Depraved. Evil.’ People became obsessed with Suzanne in the years that followed, with one ‘admirer’ even creating a website devoted to her prison artwork.
Just before I finished The Girls I watched the recent Netflix documentary about Amanda Knox and I can’t help but make links between the two. I say that the documentary is about Knox, even though it really should be about the murder of another girl, Meredith Kercher, but the focus of the media and the public, has been unequivocally on Knox, or Foxy Knoxy as she soon came to be known, who was found guilty, then acquitted, of Meredith’s brutal murder. No one really knows what happened, but despite there being two men who were allegedly at the scene of the crime, it is Amanda Knox who the prosecution admitted they really wanted to jail. Knox is the ultimate femme fatale. She was (shock horror) sexually experienced, attractive and ‘dangerous’ and since the trial has become fascinating to many. As she adm
its in the Netflix documentary,
‘If I’m guilty, it means that I am the ultimate figure to fear, because I’m not the obvious one. But on the other hand, if I’m innocent it means that everyone’s vulnerable and that’s everyone’s nightmare. Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you.’
The men, like Russell in The Girls, are not nearly as interesting as characters like Knox and Suzanne. The idea of a young woman as a depraved killer is so beguiling that we can’t get enough of it and that is at the heart of Cline’s story and makes it so hard to put down.
Loved The Girls? Read on …
- I loved the way that The Girls evokes 1969 California. For another account read Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.
- If you haven’t already, try and watch Manson, the documentary about the Manson killings with interviews with one of the girls who was there.
- For a completely different read, still on the subject of female friendship, Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels are the wonderfully detailed and subtly entrancing. You’ll read the first one and immediately want to read the next!