The Girls, by Emma Cline
Lead down dark paths of infatuation, need and circumstance to a brutal decision - would we make the right choice? What might we be capable of? These questions haunt both the main character and the book.
The Girls is a love story, a murder mystery and a coming-of-age tale, all propelled by a delicious moral ambiguity and a hopeful, lust-filled confusion.
Set in North California in 1969, it’s the tale of one particular 14 yr-old’s own personal Summer of Love - complete with long hair, flowing dresses and plenty of drugs. But Evie Boyd admits no opinion of politics, and despite being a stone’s throw from San Francisco she didn’t hang out in the Haight. Her Summer of Love was narrow, naive and personal: one girl - Susan, one place - the ranch. The rest just came with it.
Susan leads ‘The Girls’ of the title, a small tribe devoted to Russell - a character inspired by Charles Manson. The girls are first seen by Evie glinting through a buzzing, dazzling, summer haze: otherworldly and vaguely, unplaceably threatening. And that atmosphere soaks through the rest of the book.
Evie is always slightly blinded, and despite her own gains in confidence and self awareness she still fails to see the decay and rot setting into both her beloved ranch and its inhabitants. Let alone what that rot would lead to. For it’s not just the character of Russell that’s inspired by Manson, there are gruesome cult-influenced murders too.
The language in The Girls is beautiful: carefree, loose and creatively twisting to fit the confused feelings and half-grasped realities it describes. But when it needs to be brutal it can be: the murders every bit as sickening and disturbing as they should be. The triumph is that they’re believable. You can just about imagine the characters could have done it - which is quite an ask when they’re being depicted through a blur of Evie’s optimism, admiration and love. More interestingly still, is that somehow, deep down, Evie believes it too.
[Note: It shares a lot of themes and perspectives in common with Girls on Fire. I didn’t find it quite as challenging, heady, exhilarating, believable or disturbing, although it’s a little of all those things. It is also, crucially perhaps, a slightly more accessible read - perhaps for being a little less of all those things, and therefore less intense.]
Published: 2nd June 2016, Random House UK