Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

This is a strange novel – one that I’m really quite unsure of overall. The characters and plot loosely wind themselves around the infamous Manson family. Led by Charles Manson towards the end of the 1960s, the family are known for their cult behaviour and the brutal murder of the Tate family. As well as several other murders/assaults and the planned assassination of Gerald Ford – who was president of the United States from 1974 to 1977. So they were involved in some quite heavy criminal activity.

I didn’t have this in mind as I read the novel, but there was a part of me that felt as if it had to be set against something more than just Cline’s imagination. Mitch, who I believe is supposed to bear a certain resemblance to Sharon Tate, didn’t feel like a character. He felt more like someone who had really existed, if that makes sense? The rest of the girls and Russell felt like archetypes for the kind of people many of us have known or know of. At first I described this book to people who asked as a sort of re-imagining of the recklessness of being a teenage girl who wants to fit in. Something I felt we would all have some sort of knowledge of, even if faint.

However, the further I crept into this novel, the more distance created between myself and the main character Evie Boyd. My experience of childhood was nothing like hers and I started to realise that this wasn’t about a universal experience of being young, it was about a particular experience of it.

There are glimpses throughout of the things we all experience. For example, Russell’s character felt like an exaggerated version of the cool guy at school that you wish would notice you. And then when he does, you realise you’d rather he hadn’t ever looked at you at all. Because he seems alluring from a distance but is just sleazy when you get close enough to see clearly. I say that Russell was exaggerated because he was leading a sort of cult in the novel that encouraged young girls to live on a run down ranch with him, performing sexual favours in return for food and shelter and the illusion that he was looking after them. As soon as it got to this, it started to remind me of the very sinister recent BBC adaptation Three Girls, which followed the experience of the girls in Rochdale – who I’m sure we’re all quite familiar with the story of by now.

Other things I briefly imagined I might relate to, include Evie’s experience with her mother dating a few new men after her father cheated and left. Evie is only fourteen, but even at seventeen and eighteen I found myself grossed out by the fact that my mum had started dating. When you live in a single parent household and get used to the structure of things, it can be really difficult to accept change. So Evie’s reluctance to acquaint herself with her mother’s new dates was something I felt would be relatable to a good chunk of the population.

Also, Evie’s desperation to fit in with someone – anyone – is an experience that I feel is somewhat universal. As a teenager, you’re still trying to come to terms with your identity or even trying to form an identity for yourself. So when she spots Suzanne and is immediately enthralled by her rebellious, care free attitude, I sort of understood it. However, the more physical things got, the more sexualised the imagery became, again there was that distance. I could absorb what Evie was saying, but I didn’t quite understand it.

I can imagine this being the sort of book you have to study at A-Level English. The writing is the sort of writing that would make an absolute field day for analysis. Phrases like “the cushions still holding the shape of his own sleepy body”, “as if she could take in my words and make a home for them” and “the silence was knit with so much”. There’s a decorative quality to Cline’s writing that does make for an enjoyable read. Until it becomes overused. Until every final sentence lingers with such drama that you find yourself eye rolling instead of gawking in awe.

Possibly the most irritating thing about the atmosphere of this novel, is the staggered way in which Cline constructs it. There are about five line breaks every chapter, making it feel like there is no continuity to the story. And this might well be for dramatic effect. I get it. Evie’s life is scattered, the girls on the ranch are scattered, everything within the story world is scattered. But after a while you just start to feel like you’re bouncing through a field of the writer’s disorganised thoughts, wondering how to get to the finish line with a clear sense of what’s really been going on.

There were short conversations throughout the novel about the tragedy of Evie’s involvement with Russell and the girls. Once we reached the underage, perverse sex I felt like this was the tragedy we had been set up for. Surprisingly it wasn’t! The real tragedy in Evie’s narration, was the murder of Mitch and the others at the end of the novel. Which left me with the sense that Evie, narrating in retrospect from an adult version of herself, still hadn’t quite accepted the horror of what her childhood had become from the very first day she agreed to follow Suzanne to the ranch. There were threads of acceptance, unwilling to be tied together by Evie and so, by the end of the novel you’re left in a sort of unsatisfying ambivalence. Where’s the justice? Where is Evie’s understanding of what happened when she was just fourteen?

As I said earlier, it’s a strange novel. I thought I was in awe of it at the beginning, but I’m now left thinking that I’d rather not read a word of it again…

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