Tag Archives: 1969

The Girls by Emma Cline: Time for girls to become women

Cover imageThe 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.

Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan: A tasty little titbit that leaves you hungry for more.

Cover imageMr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore was one of the most enjoyable books I read last year. Clichéd as it may sound it made me laugh, it made me cry and kept me thoroughly entertained while doing so. I’d been told there might be a spin-off but had forgotten all about it until a neat little hardback turned up, billed as the prequel. I’m not going to tell you that I was as delighted by it as I was by the original – it’s far too short for that – but it has the same entertaining mix of humour and adventure, albeit in a bookish kind of way.

Essentially a short story, the book reveals how Mr Penumbra started on the path that lead him to run the 24-hour bookstore. As Junior Acquisitions Officer for the Galvanic college library, Ajax is on the hunt for Techne Tycheon, thought to be an occult text which confers great fortune, or misfortune, on its owner. It’s challenging stuff but he’s not to be defeated. After all a previous incumbent had managed to track down a book made entirely of knotted string untangled and knitted into sweaters compared to which a trail gone cold in 1657 is a mere nothing. A breakthrough takes him to San Francisco at the tail end of the summer of love where he stumbles upon the 24-hour bookstore and a clue to the whereabouts of the elusive William Gray. The ensuing adventure results in a change of career as, intrigued by the real business of the bookstore – and if you’ve read last year’s novel, you’ll know what that is – Ajax anticipates many more ascensions of the bookshelves which stretch up further than the eye can see.

For readers of Mr Penumbra, this is undoubtedly a tasty little titbit but it left me hungry for another full-length novel, and if you haven’t read that yet, please do: it’s an absolute delight. As for prequels, what do you think about them? Enjoyable or something of a let down?