The Girls – Emma Cline
Release Date: 16/06/2016
Publisher (UK): Chatto & Windus
Pages: 368pp RRP: £12.99 (Hardback)
Kindle version available here (£7.99)
I’m always a little cautious when a new release is receiving a lot of hype (especially when it also involves authors with huge book deals) – I’ve been burned before, and have adopted a default state of cautious optimism over the last few years. When Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, came into view, I was intrigued by the idea of a novel influenced by the acts of the Manson Family. To see that Cline has taken her fascination with cults and crafted a novel like this, means that the hype is just about deserved.
Evie Boyd starts the novel in a state of perpetual boredom, waiting for her divorced parents to plot out her future for her. She feels trapped in a state of childhood, frustrated and wanting the freedom that adulthood seems to promise her. When she encounters the enigmatic Suzanne and her friends at a local park, she’s drawn to their communal lifestyle, and into the orbit of Russell Hadrick, the deluded egomaniacal drifter leading the commune.
The positions that Cline gives to her characters are quite intriguing. Far from being the focal point, cult leader (and Manson analogue) Russell is almost always on the periphery of the story – the reason for the girls being brought together, but not the focus of the narrative – a malevolent force that has set a gloriously monstrous mechanism in motion. In the end it’s Suzanne who draws most of Evie’s focus for the duration of the novel, acting as the de facto leader of the women in the commune, and the one person Evie desperately craves affection from.
Given the source material from which she’s drawing, I initially expected Cline to be more graphic in her depictions of the excesses and the violent acts of the cult. But that’s what makes this work memorable – the decision to be restrained and focus on the moments leading up to the violent crescendo; the subtle rather than the overt. This focus on tension is handled extremely well, with the slow burn maintained expertly throughout the course of the narrative. The hedonistic excesses of the cult’s daily lives (and the monotony in between), the escalating acts of petty theft that Evie indulges in – all of these are kept at a simmering point for a large portion of the novel. That it’s combined with sections of an older Evie looking back on that period of her life, makes for an interesting choice of pacing – one I personally wish Cline had expanded on a bit more. The ultimately retrospective angle the narrative uses gives the author a solid foundation to work with. Whilst I felt for a time that the opening section could have been ever so slightly condensed, this would have likely impacted the simmering escalation of tension she created and would have weakened the flow of the narrative.
Cline’s debut has ultimately managed to allay most of my fears about the hype it was receiving – it didn’t blow my mind, but it is most definitely worth a look, and I’m quietly looking forward to seeing what Cline does next.