The Girls by Emma Cline was a big book of summer 2016, and after buying it last year, I’ve finally got round to reading it! Based on the notorious Manson murders and the cult behind them, The Girls is told from the perspective of a fourteen year old girl, Evie Boyd, growing up in California during the late 1960’s.
Evie is living the life as an average teenager but her mum is lonely and needy after Evie’s father left them to live with a younger woman, she’s bored of her best friend, struggling to find her way in the world and longing for something more exciting than her mundane existence. Spending her summer holidays simply biding time until she starts boarding school, one day Evie encounters an enchanting, carefree older girl, Suzanne, in the park and is instantly captivated by her.
Innocent, vulnerable and desperate to be liked by Suzanne, Evie finds herself being taken to a ranch in the California hills with her and the other girls where they live under the thumb of Russell, a singer-songwriter and cult leader. In Evie’s eyes Russell is a fairly unremarkable middle-aged man, which helps us to see him for who he really is rather than glamorising him, but Suzanne and the girls look up to him, constantly seeking his attention and approval.
Evie’s insecurity is palpable and I found myself torn between willing her not to be sucked into Suzanne’s world and a macabre curiosity for an insight into the cult. Although Evie becomes involved with the cult, stealing money for them and performing sexual acts, she never actually takes us into the heart of it, instead remaining on the edge as a critical bystander. As a result, we’re left feeling more unsettled by what isn’t said and prompted to fill in the gaps ourselves.
The narrative is split into two time-frames, switching from Evie’s point of view in the present as an adult and her days during the cult. The contrast between the two perspectives highlights Evie’s loss of innocence and how easy it is to be blinded by infatuation. More atmospheric than action-packed, Emma Cline’s beautiful prose heightens our senses whilst the fundamentally uneventful plot passes almost in a trance, as though we’re in a drugged daze, like the girls.
Dark and disturbing, there is an impending sense of doom throughout. Evie’s obsession with Suzanne and her crushing need for attention is uncomfortable to experience. The Girls has divided readers but it shouldn’t be approached as a historical account of the Manson murders. Instead, The Girls is a poignant coming of age story highlighting the vulnerability of young minds, set against the backdrop of an unsettling but morbidly fascinating time in American history. A fantastic debut, The Girls is worth every bit of the hype it received last summer and I’m looking forward to reading more from Emma Cline.