"The Girls" Emma Cline
Before we are taken back to 1969 to experience Evie Boyd's teenage summer and her involvement with a cult, the novel opens with the unexpected intrusion of her friend's son and girlfriend while she is staying (alone) in their holiday home. Immediately I was captivated by Cline's shrewd observations of teenagers - Julian doesn't remember Evie, why would he, "I was a woman outside his range of erotic attentions." Sasha, the girlfriend, reminds Evie of the "dopey part of teenage girls; the desire for love flashing in her face so directly that it embarrassed me." Through her observations of the young couple, their actions and behaviours, Evie quickly evoked empathy and sympathy from me from her deferential attitude towards herself and her ability to try to make herself invisible. I also found her comments so pertinent that they really struck a cord with me.
Julian does in fact recall Evie. He remembers that she was part of a cult. Evie's admission that she is not in any of the books with the "title bloody and oozing" or the "tomes written by the lead prosecutor with specifics down to undigested spaghetti found in the boys stomach," or the online forums that "jostled for ownership - a veneer of scholarship masking the ghoulishness of the endeavour" immediately creates a sense of intrigue and tension. A sense of doom maybe and certainly a need to read on and see what this quiet, unassuming, forgettable woman had to do with anything so sensational.
1969. Throughout the entire novel Cline deftly conveys a sense of time and place, heat, boredom, frustration and adolescence. I really enjoyed the attempts of Evie and Connie to "create a new life" for themselves with "rituals" of face washing, hair brushing and experimental make up. Evie's need to be noticed reflects the desperation of sexual awakening and naivety. I could smell her "hair foul with hair spray" and feel the "beige putty" she'd spread on her pimples. It was so resonant and authentic. I loved the comment that they tried so hard to "slur the rough disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love." Oh, who hasn't?! Cline's insight into teenagers is perfect. Her characterisation of Evie captures her vulnerable yet complex thoughts and emotions, her misguided interpretation of events and people, her exploitation by stronger peers and more manipulative, experienced girls. She is an exceptionally well crafted character.
Evie is lonely, immature, forgotten by her parents and easily influenced by the enigmatic and alluring Suzanne. She is in a perfect position to be brainwashed by cult leader Russell, although I did feel Suzanne is as responsible for this and Evie's obsession with Suzanne more damaging than that of Russell's. The novel then focusses on Evie's fascination with the cult and her inability to see the reality of what it is and what is happening to her. Her need to belong, be loved, be accepted, be an adult, allow her to glamorise events and people even when she is uncomfortable with her experiences. As is often the way with adolescence, she is unable to stop the chain of events, or remove herself from their influence. Cline skilfully explores this dilemma and the emotionally traumatic process of "coming of age".
This is a thoughtful, reflective, resonant novel. It is memorable and interesting. It is exquisite writing and the era is expertly captured. It is not sensational which it could easily have become considering the topic and predatory nature of Russell. The ending is poignant and I was left with the feeling that Evie remains on the periphery of life - even having been part of such dramatic moments in history, she was only really a bystander; an exploited and used one at that.
The blurb on Goodreads really captures how I would sum up the book so at the risk of being repetitive I am including it. I was amazed that this was a debut novel as it is so fluid, absorbing and mature. This is definitely an author to look out for and a title that will no doubt be prizewinning.
Emma Cline’s remarkable debut novel is gorgeously written and spellbinding, with razor-sharp precision and startling psychological insight. The Girls is a brilliant work of fiction—and an indelible portrait of girls, and of the women they become.
Thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review.
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