The Girls by Emma Cline

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Emma Cline's first novel The Girls is narrated by Evie Boyd, the granddaughter of famous but unnamed actress who, now in late middle-age and working as a live-in aide, has found herself without work and is staying at a friend's holiday home. One night, she awakes to find her friend's adult son, Julian, has arrived at the house with his girlfriend, Sasha. Something about Sasha - who is clearly underage - and her relationship with the superficially charming but odious Julian reminds Evie of own troubled teenage years, when boredom, low self-esteem and the inadequacy of her divorcing, self-absorbed parents made her particularly vulnerable to the lure of a hippy cult drifting through California in the late 1960s, led by the charismatic Russell Hadrick who presides over an adoring commune of young women. Russell's favourite is Suzanne, to whom 14-year-old Evie - whose sexuality is a source of some doubt and confusion to her - is instantly attracted.

Russell and the principal figures in this novel are, quite transparently, based on Charles Manson and his 'Family', and of course, everyone knows how they turned out. That does mean that there aren't many surprises in this novel; instead, the tension comes from the knowledge that something terrible is going to happen and being powerless, as a reader, to stop it. In any case, the actual plot is not really the point here; Evie's story is much more about girls and the way we treat them, and how vulnerable that can leave them to a specific type of grooming. Suzanne is in thrall to Russell, and in turn, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, who may be a vulnerable, brainwashed young woman or may just be a sociopathic manipulator - Cline cleverly makes this ambiguous.

This is a literary novel rather than a thriller. The pace is languid and the prose full of richly detailed description and reflection. The commune counter-culture of 1960s California is beautifully evoked and never romanticised. Food is scavenged from bins, the girls are plagued by mosquitos and a visitor is mocked for being so uptight as to rescue a neglected toddler about to drown. Cline also perfectly captures the unique, painful self-consciousness and unhappiness of teenage girls - and what might induce a young woman not just to fall into the hands of a Manson Family style cult but also what might build enough anger within her to make it possible for her to commit

There is a slight sense of anticlimax to this book (although it's entirely necessary) but overall I found this a gripping, if somewhat depressing, debut. The Girls is a novel that gave me a lot to think about. It also conjures up a strong sense of atmosphere and foreboding throughout, and it's an extremely accomplished first novel.