Emma Cline’s The Girls arrives trailing clouds of hype; at 26, the New Yorker staffer has reportedly signed a $2million, three-novel deal, Scott Rudin has already bought the film rights and Lena Dunham, Jennifer Egan and Stephen King are competing to praise it the loudest.
The Girls by Emma Cline | Chatto & Windus, 368pp, £12.99
The Girls is a hazy, lazy, highly fictionalised, but precisely, gorgeously written reworking of the Charles Manson story. Rather than retread the familiar tales of the cult and the murders it committed in 1969, Cline focuses on a (fictionalised) group of Manson’s young, female acolytes and their bittersweet relationships.
The narrator is Evie Boyd, now middle-aged and watching the days crumble away “like debris from a cliff face”. When she is woken up by unexpected guests in her borrowed home, her mind flashes back to childhood. Aged 14, bored, friendless and with an ill-formed but burgeoning notion of her sexuality – “We licked batteries to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumoured to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm” – she lives in a big house paid for by her once-famous actress grandmother with a divorced mother who struggles to notice her.
One day, eating a hamburger alone in the park, she is electrified by the sight of a group of grubby girls with long, tangled hair, flashing jewellery and tatty clothes that smell of mouse s**t, diving into a bin for food. They cross her mundane path, as “sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water”.
After a couple more chance encounters, she gets on the gang’s battered, black bus and arrives at the ranch where she immediately succumbs to its drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and, soon enough, sex lifestyle. The leader there is Russell Hadrick, a charismatic rockstar manque who dresses in loose jeans or stinking buckskins and uses techniques honed while working for a religious organisation to woo his prey – “thin, harried girls with partial college degrees and neglectful parents… hellish bosses and dreams of nose jobs.”
Evie, though, only has eyes for Suzanne, the cult’s alpha female, who first notices her, braids her hair (“It surprised me that anyone could just touch me at any moment, the gift of their hand given as thoughtlessly as piece of gum”), shares her bed and remains an obsession all her life, even after the murders. “A version of me is always there.”
The bloodshed remains on the novel’s periphery, as does Russell/ Manson. What sets the book apart is its exquisitely forensic portrait of what it is to be a young woman, craving attention and a sense of belonging. Looking back on her adolescent beauty regime and a head stuffed full of boys, she writes: “All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”