The Girls is another one of those novels about which there’s been a good deal of brouhaha – lots of Twitter love and advance anticipation for months – but like The Nest and The Essex Serpent, similarly lauded to the skies, it succeeds in living up to all that hype. I’m going to have to think about putting my sceptical hat into storage if this carries on. As you may already know, Emma Cline’s debut is loosely based on the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son – and her friends in 1969.
One day in a Californian park, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals, her attention snagged by the dark-haired one she will later know as Suzanne. Evie’s parents have recently divorced and her unquestioning love for her mother has soured into adolescent scorn. She and her best friend Connie are inseparable but Evie is tired of her prosaic smalltown life. When Evie spots Suzanne, thrown out of the local supermarket, she seizes her chance and finds herself invited to a summer solstice party. Soon she’s is a frequent visitor to the dilapidated ranch where the charismatic Russell holds sway over a collection of runaways, living off the donations of rock star Mitch Lewis and whatever they can filch from the town. When Russell’s ambitions to secure a record deal are thwarted, the mood at the ranch changes. The violence Evie has briefly seen but excused to herself becomes more tangible. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back on the events of 1969 as she watches an old friend’s young son and his besotted girlfriend.
The strength of Cline’s novel lies in her portrayal of adolescent girls on the brink of discovering their sexual power, vulnerable and constantly judging themselves and other women by the way they look. Their awkwardness, self-absorption and craving for the slightest sliver of recognition is painfully caught: ‘We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.’ Lonely and eager, Evie is ripe for Suzanne’s attention – her uncritical adulation tinged with desire all too believable. Cline wisely keeps her as a bit-player at the ranch, engaging our sympathy and making her a credible witness. The murders are foreshadowed with enough suspense to make it gripping but this is a character-driven novel – the killings and their immediate aftermath take up very little of it. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me – a few too many similes – but that’s a small criticism. As Evie looks back on that summer, watching Sasha subsume herself in Julian’s scant regard, hoping for another glimpse of the sassy young woman who emerged briefly in his absence, you long for all young girls to shrug off their girlhood and become women, happy in their own skins, regardless of who looks at them.