Emma Cline is just twenty-seven and already the recipient of a three book deal worth $2 million after a bidding war between twelve publishers. That’s the kind of thing that rarely happens these days, and even when it does it’s no guarantee of quality or originality (I’m looking at you Garth Risk Hallberg, AKA the stark naked emperor). Thankfully in Cline’s case, both the advance and the accompanying hype surrounding her debut novel The Girls are very much deserved.
Evie Boyd is a middle-aged woman in between jobs who is taking a break and staying in her friend’s house. She seems as if she is on the periphery of life, working as a carer, ‘cultivating a genteel invisibility in sexless clothes, my face blurred with the pleasant ambiguous expression of a lawn ornament.’ Her friend’s teenage son Julian shows up unexpectedly one night together with his girlfriend Sasha, disrupting Evie’s solitude. Julian knows about Evie’s past, her time in a cult in the late 1960s in California, and over the next few days prompted by Julian’s lurid interest, Evie begins to reflect on what happened.
In 1969 Evie is fourteen, alienated and lonely, blossoming sexually, and scarily impressionable. She is captivated by Suzanne, a glamorously cool older girl who lives in a commune with a guru and his band of followers. The commune is a fictionalised version of the Manson Family, and the charismatic leader Russell, with his long hair, buckskin shirt and failed music career, is based on Charles Manson. Evie is gradually drawn deeper into the cult, taking drugs and partying, sleeping with Russell, until she lives full-time at the ranch and is embroiled in increasingly dangerous behaviour, rolling towards the inevitable conclusion (a murder based on the infamous Tate-LaBianca killings).
A cold cynic might say that basing the novel on the Manson murders is a smart commercial move. Manson still holds a certain level of fascination and this handy reference point may have proved irresistible to publishers. However Cline’s writing is what makes this a memorable book. Her ability to conjure up the emotional turmoil and insecurity of a fourteen year old girl is masterful, and at times the perfectly observed detail in her writing creates an intensely visual experience. No wonder the film rights were snapped up before publication.
The Girls is an accomplished debut novel, all the more so given Cline’s young age. In a business where most published writers under the age of thirty are viewed with deep suspicion, she has set herself up for an already lauded and interesting career.