We meet 14-year old Evie in the middle of a restless Californian summer, 1969. She is painfully awkward – in the way that teenagers so often are – and spends her time longing for something more, however tragic or painful, in the way of someone who has never experienced anything but a comfortable existence. Whiling away the summer with her only friend, they dream of what lies beyond their humdrum lives.
“…Songs that overheated my own righteous sadness, my imagined alignment with the tragic nature of the world. How I loved to wring myself out that way, stoking my feelings until they were unbearable. I wanted all of life to feel that frantic and pressurized with portent, so even colours and weather and tastes would be more saturated. That’s what the songs promised, what they trawled out of me.”
Evie is, in this sense, ripe for the picking. In town one afternoon her eyes are drawn to a group of young girls, seeming to brim with a kind of freedom that she can only dream of. She becomes particularly enamoured with Suzanne, a desire and fascination that swiftly draws her in to the bigger picture at play; a new age cult living on the breadline in the Californian hills, led by the egomaniacal, charismatic Russell.
The squalor and apparent freedom holds a particular allure for Evie, who has never known anything but the ordinary. There are plenty of drugs and never enough food, all the girls share the same tatty bin bag of clothes from charity shops, children run riot, blistered and burnt and to the point of feral.
This is a world away from everything Evie has ever known, as she finds herself sucked in to a surreal, all-encompassing existence where she feels important, treasured, part of something bigger than herself. When she returns home for brief sojourns to her distracted mother who is preoccupied with her new boyfriend, the normal world – her past life – is almost unrecognisable to her;
“Had the trees always looked like that, so strange and aquatic? Or were things already shifting for me, the dumb litter of the normal world transforming into the lush stage sets of a different life?”
It’s no secret that this novel is based on the Manson murders, and the world of The Girls steadily turns darker and more oppressive, building up a crescendo to the horrific acts that would make the real-life cult (in)famous.
Emma Cline’s writing style has divided readers, and I feel that at times it tends to style over substance, over-written, overwrought prose with jarring word choices and hyperbolic, hyper-real metaphors. But I also see how this style lends itself to the atmosphere of the book; surreality, intensity, the imaginations and desires of a 14-year old girl.
The problem was, for me, that the book felt under-developed, and the ending, when it came, felt weak. Part of this is because we know all along how the story ends. But whilst you come away from the book with a strong sense of the atmosphere – the decay, the fervour, the promise – there’s no real sense of the people and the events; there’s a certain haziness. This is with the exception of our protagonist Evie, in whom Cline captures well the insecurities and painful awkwardness of that age – it’s not hard to see how a character like her would have been drawn into the allure of promise, freedom and belonging, oblivious to the monstrous ending that awaits.