One of the books that is, without question, being most talked about this summer is Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls. It is one of those books that seems to be everywhere and everyone is raving about, in fact they were before it came out which I have to admit put me off reading the proof. However the urge suddenly grabbed me, I am great believer in reading books when your mood is just right, a few weeks ago. Several weeks later I am still mulling over the way the book made me feel because I think it is fair to say I had rather a roller coaster of extreme feelings about it which are only just starting to settle down.
I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.
In the summer of 1969 Evie is just fourteen and struggling with school friendships, hormones and her mother gaining a new boyfriend. From the moment she spots a group of slightly older girls getting off a coach and wandering around her town she becomes somewhat besotted. These are the girls she dreams of having friendships with, these are the kind of girls that she dreams of being and so she starts to, in a cutely naive and slightly doe-eyed way, linger around waiting for an opportunity to engage with them. After a rather daring act for her age she does indeed befriend one of them, Suzanne, who is also seemingly the leader of this girl gang. Soon Evie is drawn into a whole different sphere as she follows the girls back to where they live, which happens to be the home of a cult and its charmingly manipulative leader, Russell.
I think it is pretty common knowledge that Cline has centred her book around a fictional take of the Charles Manson murders, which I have to admit I knew (and still know) very little about. So from the start we know that there is going to be something horrific that happens at the end. What we don’t know, and really becomes the momentum for why we keep reading, is how implicit Evie becomes in those dreadful events. Cline does something else to add a layer of enigma to that when she alternates chunks of the book with Evie at 14 and then several decades later when she is staying at a friends house hiding away from the world.
This also rather brilliantly adds a very clever dynamic to the narratives of Evie, particularly as when she is younger we have the naivety of her age at the time, as well as her rebellion, but also a slight sense of hindsight because of the older Evie telling us that story now. It creates a slight unseen sublayer that also makes us question how much of what she is telling us is the complete truth; you all know I love a good unreliable narrator. With this technique Cline does wonderfully evoke the thoughts, feelings and most importantly the vulnerability of being a teenager, when you think you know how the world works and you are a complete grown up but years later realise you had no clue, and the whole idea of hero worship.
As soon as I’d caught sight of the girls cutting their way through the park, my attention stayed pinned on them. The black-haired girl with her attendants, their laughter a rebuke to my aloneness. I was waiting for something without knowing what. And then it happened. Quick, but still I saw it: the girl with black hair pulled down the neckline of her dress for a brief second, exposing the red nipple on her bare breast. Right in the middle of a park swarming with people. Before I could fully believe it, the girl yanked her dress back up. They were all laughing, raunchy and careless; none of them even glanced up to see who might be watching.
Because of all these factors I raced through the first part of the book, even when it starts to get a little bit icky towards the end when Evie and Russell finally meet. Admittedly, as well as the book grabbing, part of why I was racing through it was for Evie to get to the cult and to then see how Cline evoked the persuasive nature of a leader who could get people to believe in the oddest of things. She does this brilliantly chillingly and uncomfortably. My skin was crawling as you feel yourself being groomed through Evie’s eyes.
“We can make each other feel good,” he said. “You don’t have to be sad.”
I flinched when he pushed my head towards his lap. A singe of clumsy fear filled me. He was good at not seeming angry when I reared away. The indulgent look he gave me, like I was a skittish horse.
“I’m not trying to hurt you, Evie.” Holding out his hand again. The strobe of my heart going fast. “I just wantto be close to you. And don’t you want me to feel good? I want you to feel good.”
Yet after the initial introduction to the girls, the cult and the repulsive Russell the book took a couple of turns for me as a reader that I wasn’t expecting. I hate to say it but in part two I got really, really bored. Let me explain why. For some reason just as Cline gets us to the cult storyline she turns away from it, even though Cline has said this book is about peripheral characters around a horrendous event which is fair enough. She instead veers away and takes us to the present where Evie strikes a weird friendship with a much younger woman. Whilst I understood why she did it, after I realised which Evie we were with, as it is another discussion of female role models and bonds between women, it just felt a bit clunky and unnecessary. Then when we do go back to the summer 1969 suddenly seems to shy away from the cult and just focus on the girls causing mild havoc in suburbia instead. I was a bit miffed frankly. However her writing and the brooding slightly gothic sense of doom led me on to part three… the part which made me utterly furious. See I said it was a rollercoaster of a read for me.
As most readers will know there are going to be murders I don’t think it is a spoiler, or much of a leap of common sense, to know these will happen towards the end. For me Cline suddenly ramps everything up and sends us suddenly to that point. Two weird things happened as we got to these murders, which to be honest suddenly came quite left field after quite a few pages of meandering elsewhere, for me. Firstly I was taken back to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood where as you get to the actual description of the murders I started to feel sweaty sick and actually cried as they went on, so Cline had got to me in some way. Then, unlike with In Cold Blood in fact the polar opposite, I suddenly felt incredibly manipulated by this book, then disgusted. Then really, really, really angry.
Whereas with In Cold Blood (which is a masterpiece and slightly unfair to compare this novel to but it is my reference point and what I thought about after reading The Girls) you get to know the murderers and their motives inside out as well as the lives of the victims, you don’t with The Girls. The girls themselves are quite shadowy and two dimensional, Evie is really the only fully formed character, who still in some ways remains an enigma. So therefore the intended impact for me to be horrified yet try and understand how these girls ended up doing such a horrific thing, was completely lost. Instead it felt more like Cline had decided to write about a famous murder and the people behind it but chickened out somewhat and wrote about the character on the periphery instead but kept a big, slightly voyeuristic gory murder scenario in because that is what would sell books. At least that is how that all made me feel which I am sure is not what Cline intended at all, it is just what I was left with.
Extreme I know, but that is where this book took me which I am actually really sad about because Emma Cline can clearly write, her prose is wonderful throughout even in the horror-fest which as I said did the job because it moved me to tears. I just wish I had felt it was all for more of a reason and I didn’t. Really strange. Funnily enough I was talking about this book just the other day and was saying how this is probably how it feels to be someone who loathed A Little Life, which you know I have a special place in my bookish heart for, and felt it utterly manipulated them. I am also clearly in a very small minority because everyone I love and turn to for book recommendations has been utterly bowled over by it. It is also for that reason, though I would never tell you not to read a book, that I would still say give the book a whirl and see what you think… then come back to me and have a natter about it please.