The Girls by Emma Cline

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Reviewed by Annabel

I received a proof copy of The Girls about six months ago, and even back then it was being plugged as this summer’s biggest novel. The interest has built over the following months until it was finally published in mid-June and author Emma Cline was everywhere promoting it.

Was it worth the hype?

On balance, I think it was. However, if you approach this novel from the wrong angle, you may be disappointed. Much has been made of how the author’s narrative was influenced by the Manson murders, that gruesome killing spree in the summer of 1969 carried out by a group of girls instructed by their cult leader Charles Manson. Cline’s novel has a similar group, led by the charismatic Russell. They will go on to murder for him, but this novel is not just a fictional recreation of a true crime with the names changed.

It’s about the girls and how these young women succumb to becoming the puppets of their leader. The story is told by the one that got away, Evie Boyd, just fourteen at the time; they didn’t take her with them when they went out to kill. We’re introduced to ‘the girls’ straight away in a short prologue; Evie is at the park:

I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed. Then their jewelry catching the sun. The three of them were far enough away that I saw only the periphery of their features, but it didn’t matter – I knew they were different from everyone else in the park.

…I saw right away that the black-haired one was the prettiest. I had expected this, even before I’d been able to make out their faces. There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her, a dirty smock dress barely covering her ass. She was flanked by a skinny redhead and an older girl, dressed with the same shabby afterthought. … the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.

Cline uses a dual time-frame to let Evie tell her story. Decades later, Evie is between jobs and house-sitting for a friend in their vacation house. Evie has worked as a live-in aide, a nurse and companion tending invisibly to people’s needs, living quietly, trying to place her past behind her. But when new people hear her name, many remember reading that she was on the edge of that group – like when house-owner Dan’s son Julian arrives at the house with his girlfriend Sasha, expecting to find it empty. They agree to share the house, and Evie will gradually bond with Sasha.

Back to 1969 though, and Evie is desperate for attention. Mostly ignored by her newly divorced mother at home, she looks for something, someone to fill the gap until she’ll go to boarding school in the autumn. She watches the girls when they appear in town, and starts tagging along with the black-haired Suzanne whom she is fixated on. They tell her about their life with Russell:

I didn’t know how to imagine Russell. I had only the limited reference point of men like my father or boys I’d had crushes on. The way these girls spoke of Russell was different, their worship more practical, with none of the playful, girlish longing I knew. Their certainty was unwavering, invoking Russell’s power and magic as though it were as widely acknowledged as the moon’s tidal pull or the earth’s orbit.

The reality is of course very different. Russell may outwardly fit the archetype of the charismatic guru, but underneath is a sociopath, seeking to control all those within his sphere of influence, not just the girls, but also guys, although the women at his ranch outnumber the men several-fold. None of them can see it though, the girls’ curiosity about sex and drugs and being noticed overrides their inhibitions, and Evie will also fall for it. However, Russell wants nothing more than to become a superstar like Mitch, the rich musician he is cultivating to cut a record with, whom he is hoping to persuade to keep bankrolling their community. It is when the real world collides to burst Russell’s balloon that things really begin to turn.

Cline is very good at capturing all the emotions of the teenaged girls, their search for their own identity, subsumed by hormones and being groomed. There is rarely enough proper food around the ranch and their poor diet also adds to their chemical imbalance, allowing their brain-washing. All this time, Evie’s newly loved-up mother thinks she’s staying with her former best friend while Evie is joining in at the ranch.

Cline’s luminous and sultry prose reels us in, and the promise of the awful events to come kept me reading in horrified anticipation. We do get some of the gore, but by keeping Evie on the periphery it does feel a slight cop-out in this respect.

However, this was never Cline’s intention. She wants to show us the fall-out from merely having been on the edge of something so awful, and how that affected Evie’s life. Would Evie have joined in if she’d been a little older, less of a bystander. Poor Evie is doomed to re-live the consequences of what happened every day and think what if? (like a dream-horror version of Groundhog Day in a way). The Girls is a novel that is slow-burn and thoughtful in style that shocks upon later reflection more than on the page.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Emma Cline, The Girls (Chatto & Windus, 2016). 978-17854740443, 368 pp., hardback.

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