I received The Girls in exchange for an honest review.
“They didn’t have very far to fall – I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe in yourself.”
The Girls has to be one of the hottest tipped debuts of the year, sparking a major bidding war amongst publishers before the 25-year-old author allegedly sealed the deal with a £2 million contract with Random House. And having read it, I can see why. Emma Cline’s talent shines through in this compelling debut. She writes with such a wisdom beyond her years, such a nostalgia for a bygone era and a lost youth. It’s incredible to think that she is younger than me.
Set over the summer of 1969 in California, The Girls is loosely based on Charles Manson and the girls who murdered for him. The story’s protagonist is Evie, 14 years old, lonely and shy. Following her parents’ divorce she lives with just her mother and has one close friend, Connie. Her middle-class existence is mundane and unfulfilling. That is, until she sees the girls.
“These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.”
Evie first spots the group in her local park, and is fascinated by their confident, care-free attitude, so at odds with the sheltered life she is accustomed to. She is desperate to see them again and gets her wish soon enough, eventually travelling with them to visit the ranch where they live and meeting their leader, Russell.
“You’ll love him,” she said. “He’s not like anyone else. No bullshit. It’s like a natural high, being around him. Like the sun or something. That big and right.”
But even as Evie is desperately trying to fit in, the cracks in the group’s alternative lifestyle are evident to the reader; the power Russell seems to hold over the girls; the way he takes these underage girls back to his campervan as he pleases; the dilapidated state of the ranch itself. The story moves relatively slowly and yet I was on edge the entire time; Evie recounts hazy summer days spend in a dream-like, drug-induced trance, but it is always tinged with a sense of foreboding.
“There was so much, that first night, that should have been a warning. But even later, even knowing the things I knew, it was hard to see beyond the immediate.”
The story is told in retrospect; Evie in present day now middle-aged has the gift of hindsight, she is easily able to reflect on how her time with the girls shaped her, the desperate thrill of youth and the lucky escape she had. And yet in some ways, it’s clear that the rest of her life never quite lived up to that wild summer of 1969, and her relationship with one of the girls, Suzanne.
Having been born in the very late 80s in England, I have to admit I didn’t know much at all about the Manson family before reading this book. But, having cycled through a few Wikipedia pages trying to learn more, it seems that this book is only very loosely based on the true story – all names are changed and many of the important facts are changed or removed completely. And yet Cline paints an unnervingly realistic picture of how easily these young, vulnerable girls could follow a man like Russell/Charles.
There’s something special about this book, but that doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant or easy read. Evie is not a particularly likeable character, and I experienced a vague sense of unease and even disgust reading her unnerving story. But in one sense this just means that the author has done her job well. An incredibly well-written, powerful and captivating work of fiction.