#HoBBookclub: The Girls by Emma Cline

Friday 30 September 2016 by

The Girls, Emma Cline, Book, Reading, #HoBBookclub, Chatto & Windus

The Girls by Emma Cline

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading The Girls. This is an amazing book. Hot and hazy and visceral, it is everything you would want from it. It grabs you from the moment you start reading.

Set between the late 60s and decades later, it follows the story of Evie as she falls in with a cult, led by Russell Hadrick, a man who surrounds himself with impressionable women and drives them to do terrible things. Sound familiar? That’s because The Girls is loosely based on a real-life cult – Charles Manson and his “Family”, who committed brutal murders in August 1969.

In fact, the parallels run deep, from Russell’s similarities with Manson, to the brutal outcome of the story itself. But what is most captivating is Cline’s evocation of teenagehood. Evie is 14 – she is impressionable and rebellious, and ripe pickings for someone as alluring as Russell and his girls. It is, in fact, Suzanne, who draws Evie in to the wilderness of the cult, rather than Russell himself – who is ultimately a peripheral character.

The cult gives Evie a chance to evolve from her static life – divorcing parents, looming boarding school, and a listless friendship with Connie, whose older brother is the subject of a brief diversion. It gives her the chance to rebel, to fill an emotional black hole that feels unending when you are so young. Evie is not strong enough to withstand the siren call of the cult. It is exciting, different, and wild. It is full of sex and freedom, and it is what Evie believes she craves.

The older Evie, who steps in to the narrative only to piece it together, is not as enticing as the younger Evie. She neither shines nor disappoints, only serving as a narrative marker for the reader. It is the story of the girls, and the events that unfold, that hold the true magic of this novel.

The summer of 1969 is hot, and the heat oozes from the pages with the same heavy implication that it presses on Evie. You feel the slow, inexorable pull of the rebelliousness, the wild, jolting ride of the forbidden. It is easy to see how Evie is drawn in to the centre of it all.

Cults offer a goldmine of material for writers, but often it can border on sensationalism, on farcical or even on insensitive. But Cline doesn’t give the cult its power without taking part of it away. It is a steady dance of romanticism and fear – the same emotions that the girls battle with. When the inevitable, bloody conclusion comes, it is neither a surprise (Cline does away with any potential plot twists early on) nor a titillating pique. It is as terrifying, as traumatic, as it should be, leaving that tang of fear on your tongue.

Evie is somewhat separated from the narrative, trying to be an observer rather than a participator, but this never quite seems to work. Instead, you find yourself drawn and repulsed by her. Cline’s imagery of a teenage girl is unerringly blunt – and often uncomfortably accurate. When a book can make the mundane everyday seem like a wave of emotion, you know you have found a fantastic writer. The Girls has already been snapped up for film, had multiple book deals, and was one of the hottest reads of the summer. It is not hard to see why. This vicious exploration of women’s behaviour, of youth, and of the terrifying power of a charismatic man, lingers long in the memory and leaves your fingers tingling from its effects.

~*~

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