Emma Cline’s eloquent, coming-of-age debut novel The Girls has been met with such positive fanfare that I was quite sure it could never live up to the hype. How wrong I was. The Californian writer drew inspiration from her admitted obsession with Charles Manson for the story, but it was not he that appealed to Cline, instead the young women who flocked to him. Her parents would drive past Manson’s prison when she was young, calling it his “house,” and it was only as an adult she learned of his inner-circle of women; devotees helplessly, hopelessly drawn to the charismatic leader; one who had such a hold on them they would do his bidding, no matter what he asked.
It was Manson who orchestrated multiple killings in Southern California in 1969, including the murder of the actress Sharon Tate. And so, the scene of the story is set: the year is 1969 and heat is intense. Fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd is about to have a summer she will never be able to forget. But we enter the novel in the present day and Boyd – now middle-aged – reflects on her youth, the hazy Californian summer. She’s spared the worst, but the mistakes continue to haunt her years later.
Young Evie is unsure and lonely. Her parents have separated, and it doesn’t take long for her to fall under the spell of Suzanne, the coolest of the girls. She is, exactly who Evie aspires to be. But Suzanne is already in the thrall of someone herself: Charles Manson-esque cult leader, the creepy Russell. So desperate for love and adult approval is Evie that she ignores the signs of brainwashing and becomes immersed the world of a born-again, self-titled prophet; this man, “an expert in female sadness” drawing on girls with neglectful parents. Our narrator, alongside all the other girls, are easy targets; Russell asks them to give and give they do. They offer their minds, bodies and money and then much more to please their leader who wields power over them with tales of love and no boundaries.
Charles Manson has become a cult in himself. Today many books, TV shows and made-for-TV movies still all centre on this dark, chilling figure and that is how Cline’s novel differs. She had enough of historical depictions of Manson and wanted to focus on dark impulses that drove his acolytes, rather than have them be footnotes in the story, and this is precisely what she does.
From the beginning, the reader is assured of the gruesome death that will come, yet when it does, the reader feels a sense of detachment, and this is due to the strength of Cline’s well-crafted prose. Evie is a spectator, and the deaths unfold predictably, yet it was her adult detailed reflections that had me hooked; they are introspective and beautiful, and the centrefold of Suzanne’s friendship with Evie offers a change of pace; a break from the cult world of Manson and his devastating and dark demands, which enables the story to flow.
This is a perceptive, insightful and beautifully written book on the often harsh realities of the formative teenage years and a telling truth of what some will do to belong and feel loved.
It is a must-read.