Pinging around the universe, hoping for a host

The Girls
by Emma Cline

I had heard mixed reviews of this huge bestseller, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, from page one it was clear that this was an impressive book by an author with a masterful grasp of language.

The story is narrated by Evie, a middle-aged woman who is reminded by the intrusion of a teenage couple into her life of the summer of 1969, when she was 14. She was a typically insecure girl, lusting after her best friend Connie’s brother, feeling generally invisible. Then she saw the girls, or more specifically, she saw Suzanne. Suzanne is unwashed, wearing ill-fitting ragged clothes, but she exudes confidence and young Evie is transfixed.

Evie follows her new obsession to a remote ranch where she finds a cult led by a man called Russell. Over her summer holiday she spends more and more time at the ranch, exposed to drugs, sex and other behaviours Russell’s followers think of as adult. Evie clocks right away that Russell has magnetic appeal and that all the girls are sleeping with him, but for her the attraction is still Suzanne.

“So much of desire, at that age, was a wilful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.”

It’s hard as an adult to understand the appeal of the cult, but Cline does a good job of explaining the vulnerability of young women and the way Russell and his followers prey on that vulnerability. It’s terrifying but completely believable.

From the start of the book we know that a terrible crime was committed by cult members, murders that caused a press sensation. We also know that Evie didn’t take part, but how close was she? Was it innate goodness or dumb luck that saved her?

The crime is brutal, and Cline doesn’t skimp on detail, but most of the book concentrates on Evie and the relationships she forged that summer. The framing device of older Evie looking back gives us a glimpse of how that summer, the cult and the murders have left their mark on Evie. But it also lets us know that she survived, moved on. Why reveal that up front? It’s an interesting decision. I suppose it ensures that we have sympathy for Evie. Anyone who spots the similarity to the Manson Family (which Cline acknowledges as inspiration) will suspect what’s coming, after all.

“I kept bobbing in the water, algae speckling the hair on my legs like filings to a magnet. A forgotten paperback ruffled on the seat of the lawn chair. The leaves in the trees were silvery and spangled, like scales, everything full with June’s lazy heat. Had the trees around my house 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?”

This book is scary because it gets under the skin, into the psyche of people like the Manson Family, ie, actual murderers who existed. But it is also incredibly well written, with gorgeous language. I couldn’t help looking up details of the Manson Family after I finished the book, and the reality was much darker. But I do appreciate the insight I have gained, and despite Evie being a difficult character, I enjoyed getting inside her head.

First published 2016 by Random House.

Source: Waterstones, Liverpool.