The Girls by Emma Cline

Evie is staying at a friend’s holiday home, holing up while she waits for her next carer’s job. Suddenly her solitude is interrupted by her friend’s son, Julian, a young man no longer in college who is on a drugs run with his younger girlfriend, Sasha. Julian knows all about Evie’s youth, her involvement in that cult that murdered a bunch a people out in Marin.

The next morning Julian leaves without Sasha and the awkwardness of being a teenage girl longing to find approval, a place to fit in the world, reminds Evie of everything that happened to her when she saw and fell for the charms of Suzanne, the nineteen year old living on the ranch and doing everything for Russell. Russell who slept with all the girls. Russell who was about to get a record deal. Russell who wanted everyone to give up their ego and love.

Evie knows what it’s like to want to be part of something, to be ready to change and put up with shame, self-loathing, objectification, simply to feel as if you belong. She tries to help Sasha, but Sasha won’t be helped. The slow trickle of stories about Julian, the humiliation he subjects her to when he returns with another friend, makes the story of female adolescence one that hasn’t changed since Evie’s youth in the 60s.

This is one of the most impressive and depressing things about The Girls. The novel is ultimately about the strength and impressionability of women – even Evie’s mother desperately seeks approval from men – of how easily they are manipulated into behaving in ways dangerous to others as well as themselves, of how their strength allows them to carry things through. Emma Cline shows how this impressionability starts innocently:

‘How desperately Connie and I thought that if we performed these rituals – washed our faces with cold water, brushed our hair into a static frenzy with a boar-bristle brush before bed – some proof would solve itself and a new life would spread out before us.’ (Chapter 1, Location 362)

The girls are manipulated but also understand how to manipulate others. Men, like Evie’s father, who once seemed to have all the answers and all the control, can be shown to be weak in the arms of a woman, her step-mother, not much older than Evie, who knows how to play with his desire, and Sasha’s relationship with Julian makes these tired gender battles terrifyingly contemporary. What has changed?

The novel isn’t all doom and gloom but it does set a desire for belonging, a desire to be seen and loved as we are, against a more widely understood moral code. What would Evie have done for Suzanne? Evie can never know, but we can share her fear that under pressure from someone we love we might do something outside of our usual moral boundaries. This is a terrifying and poignant exploration of how extreme behaviour, terrible acts, can grow from ordinary experiences and feelings.

The Girls is a frightening, compelling novel. It’s well written and it asks difficult questions about gender and sexual politics; it forces us to question our certainty that love is the centre of our moral high ground; it urges us to think about the vulnerability of the young, even those who seem most self-confident. What can we do to offer a different world for the young to grow into?

Next week I’m reading Love across a broken map: Short stories from The Whole Kahani edited by Farhana Shaikh.