Publisher: Chatto & Windus.
Hardcover, 368 pages.
Release date: June 16th 2016.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.
California. The summer of 1969. In the dying days of a floundering counter-culture a young girl is unwittingly caught up in unthinkable violence, and a decision made at this moment, on the cusp of adulthood, will shape her life....
Evie Boyd is desperate to be noticed. In the summer of 1969, empty days stretch out under the California sun. The smell of honeysuckle thickens the air and the sidewalks radiate heat.
Until she sees them. The snatch of cold laughter. Hair, long and uncombed. Dirty dresses skimming the tops of thighs. Cheap rings like a second set of knuckles. The girls.
And at the centre, Russell. Russell and the ranch, down a long dirt track and deep in the hills. Incense and clumsily strummed chords. Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways.
Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?
Possibly the most talked about book of 2016, Emma Cline’s impressive debut, The Girls, takes us back to the summer of ’69 and introduces us to Evie Boyd, a fourteen year old with not enough parental supervision and a whole lot of too much time on her hands, a disastrous combination in anyone’s book, but especially here. Witnessing a pack of semi-feral teenage girls scavenging for food in a dumpster, Evie’s interest is piqued. She wants to know more about these girls. A chance encounter in a local store with one of the girls, Suzanne, sees Evie score herself an invite to ‘The Ranch’ where the girls live with their charismatic leader, an aspiring musician called Russell. When Russell learns that Evie’s Grandmother was once a star of Hollywood, he seems interested in what she has to offer to the group. Soon, Evie is spending most of her time on the ranch, where nights are spent under the stars tripping on free love, all kinds of drugs and one-on-one time with Russell. This is the life that Evie wants. The girls, with their untamed hair and untethered spirits are everything that Evie wants to be.
But, there’s a catch.
If you didn’t already know, The Girls is based on the true events surrounding Charles Manson and his ‘Manson Family’ cult who signalled the death knell for free love and flower children when they committed a series of gruesome murders in Los Angeles in 1969. Cline’s story –though it is a work of fiction- closely mirrors the events of this time, so if you’re familiar with details of the Manson Family, there are no surprises here. To that end, I’m surprised that this book is surrounded by such hype. The story itself is nothing ground-breaking, already written in history as it is.
However, as a character study and coming-of-age tale, which is essentially what this is, The Girls is an engrossing read. Cline’s insight into the mind of a teenage girl, so uncomfortable in her own skin, so desperate for love and attention that she’ll do just about anything to get it, lends itself to an entrancing reading experience. At the ranch, the girls are held in thrall to Russell; hanging on his every word, they are mesmerised by him. And though Evie spends one-on-one time with Russell too, he never truly captures her heart of her mind. It is the girls, and in particular, Suzanne, who are the cult leaders of Evie’s heart. And she will do anything for them.
Of course, if you know details of Charles Manson and the ‘Family’ then you know how this story ends. Because of that I expected a truly harrowing story, one that I would find difficult, even impossible to read. I am familiar with details of the murders the Manson Family committed and I find them truly disturbing and always upsetting to read about. This book, though, isn’t disturbing or upsetting, at least I didn’t find it so. It’s not that Cline shies away from details of that terrible night, exactly, it’s just not, at its core, what this book is about. That would be Evie: her formative years, the kind of person she is, who she becomes, and how the events of one summer shaped her whole life.
Then, there’s the writing, which in my opinion, more than the story itself is the reason for the hype surrounding this book. Cline’s writing is at times truly beautiful. At other times it’s all a bit pretentious and overblown. Really, it is. Cline writes sentences to savour, lines you’ll read over and over again, because they are just so clever and because they are so beautifully written that they’ll make you smile. She also writes sentences that’ll make you roll your eyes. I know people who have found this book too pretentious to bear. I loved her writing, though. Loved it. And I can’t wait to see what Cline writes next.
If you are interested in learning more about the events depicted in this book, I recommend the Manson episodes of the ‘You Must Remember This’ podcast. Really interesting stuff.