Girls on Fire – Robin Wasserman
Release Date: 05/05/2016
Publisher (UK): Little, Brown
Pages: 368pp RRP: £12.99 (Hardback)
Kindle version available here (£6.99)
Sometimes it can be easy to summarise a novel in a brief sentence for a friend. You don’t often get the chance to describe something as ‘being like a sinister version of Mean Girls with a grunge soundtrack, and just a touch of Heathers‘ though. Set in the small Pennsylvanian town of Battle Creek during the height of grunge music and the Satanic panic, Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire is an interesting depiction of destructive friendships and the dark places they can take a person to.
Wasserman’s novel centres around the friendship of Hannah Dexter and Lacey Champlain. Hannah has largely been an almost non-presence for most of her life, whilst Lacey is a new transplant to the small town life. Venerating Kurt Cobain and renaming Hannah ‘Dex’, Lacey stirs something in her new acquaintance, and their friendship rapidly blossoms. Initially drawn together by their mutual hatred of Nikki Drummond, a popular girl who’s boyfriend, Craig, committed suicide the previous Halloween (and to which Nikki seems largely apathetic), the two form a bond which will eventually have major consequences for all those around them.
At the point in time the novel depicts, the Satanic panic was a major influence within the Christian right of America, and the paranoia of conservative parents and their families is on full display here (with some exceptions of course). The actions and acts of rebellion of both girls play on these fears, distorting how they’re viewed by their peers, at times to almost absurd levels. Lacey’s targets for her rebellion are reflective of her home life: her mother has recently had a child with an overtly religious man, seemingly completely at odds with her former life as a groupie. Lacey’s embracing of LaVeyan Satanism after acquiring a copy of The Satanic Bible is at first almost farcical (including baptising her baby brother in the name of Lucifer), but progresses towards something darker as the local townspeople begin to take notice and build their own myths about her. In comparison, Hannah has had a far more comfortable life, and her journey seems to focus on overindulgence and a desire to be seen, rather than outright confrontation. This leaves her far more vulnerable to manipulation, which eventually culminates in events that make it hard to put the novel down.
Wasserman’s command of dialogue gifts her characters with some surprisingly sharp observations, and more than a few laugh out loud quips – whether it be about their mutual hatred of Nikki, or an awkward encounter in a dirty bathroom at a gig. Her depiction of Lacey and Hannah’s journey handles their attempted acts of rebellion with just about the right amount of tongue-in-cheek, showing the theatrics for what they are and prodding at the real reasons behind them. It’s worth noting that it can be very easy to get bogged down with nostalgia reading the descriptions that Wasserman gives, and at times Lacey’s devotion to Cobain and her newfound ‘faith’ can feel overwrought and a little grating, but there never seems to be any condescension in how the protagonists are presented (even Nikki, despite her depiction as a budding sociopath, feels fleshed out and respected by the author), something that another author could easily have fallen prey to.
Whilst it won’t necessarily set the world aflame, it might just get an award nomination or adaptation. I enjoyed reading Girls on Fire – if you want something with a bit of bite to go along with its nostalgia, give this a look.