Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

Monday, 5 September 2016

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. 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.” ― Emma Cline, The Girls

When I started reading The Girls by Emma Cline, I told people I was reading a story based on the Tate-Labianca murders, complete with a gaggle of obedient young female followers and a leader, Russell, echoing the personality and ambitions of Charlie Manson. I learned, quite quickly, that The Girls was anything but, rather it's a careful exploration of girlhood and identity set against the backdrop of a cult.

I read much of The Girls on a rowboat on Christie Lake while my better half fished and I fell in love with Evie Boyd, a curious and lonely teenager with the privilege of boredom and freedom in Northern California during a summer at the end of the 1960s. After catching sight of exotic Suzanne, a few years her senior, Evie finds herself on a run down ranch with a likeminded group of misfits also grappling with their identities and searching for a place to belong.

The Girls is hardly about a rabid cult hungry for murder. Instead, it's about place, and the human desire to belong and be part of something. Edie longs to leave behind the normalcy of her daily life and her parents' new lives following a divorce.
 "I may have smiled to myself as I watched the familiar pattern of the town pass, the bus cruising through shade to sunshine. I'd grown up in this place, had the knowledge of it so deep in me that I didn't even know most street names, navigating instead by landmarks, visual or memorial. The corner where my mother had twisted her ankle in a mauve pantsuit. The copse of trees that had always looked vaguely attended by evil. The drugstore with its torn awning. Through the window of that unfamiliar bus, the burr of old carpet under my legs, my hometown seemed scrubbed clean of my presence. It was easy to leave behind." 
The Girls is a brilliant debut by California's Emma Cline. (You may remember, it was at the centre of a bidding war, eventually selling to Random House as part of a three-book deal for a rumoured "$2 million and change"). Cline's prose is so delicate, it reminded me of Us, Conductors, and I found myself jotting down passages on almost every page: "You wanted things and you couldn't help it, because there was only your life, only yourself to wake up with, and how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong?"

I've written before that most of my favourite books are non-fiction, but every once in a while I find myself gobsmacked by a work of fiction that I can't stop talking about. The Girls is one of those books. It's thoughtful and intelligent, but above all else, it's relatable, a trait I didn't expect from a book loosely based on one of America's most grisly murders.

Read this book. Read it, read it, read it, and let me know how much you love it. I can't imagine you won't.

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