At the start of a hot summer in the late 1960s, teenager Evie Boyd is swept away by the attentions of a group of girls. Living on a ranch in the Californian hills, this group, ;along with other young people, is under the influence of an older man, Russell. Evie is vulnerable, her parents have recently divorced and she is feeling lonely and lost, and through an obsessive need to be near Suzanne, the ringleader of the girls, Evie is drawn in, and finds herself a party to terrible crimes.
Emma Cline’s debut novel has generated huge hype, and with good reason. I happened to pick it up to read at exactly the same time as I was listening to a podcast series about the Manson family murders, and it’s clear that the story of The Girls is hugely influenced by those events, but it goes beyond a young girl being brainwashed by a creepy older guy claiming to be a guru. Evie seems never to be entirely taken in by Russell, but she develops an obsessive attachment to Suzanne, and this is where the danger lies for her.
The narrative switches between fourteen-year-old Evie, and a much older iteration of the same character. The two narratives sit together perfectly to create the tension, just as we are swept up in young Evie’s story, willing it along to find out what happens next (even though we ultimately know the destination), we are jolted back into the present day, learning how Evie carries what happens with her.
Evie is only fourteen, but this is not a book about teenagers in love, or in lust. This is the story of a true obsession on Evie’s part; even though there’s a small part of her that can sense that Suzanne is dangerous, she’s not old enough for these thoughts to fully form, and instead she just craves her attention, and wants to be around her all the time. Instead of falling under the spell of Russell, she finds herself jealous of him as she realises that he commands Suzanne’s attention all of the time.
There are no huge surprises in The Girls, it’s not a story that is out to shock its readers with a huge twist. We are quickly aware of what is coming, and we are even given an idea of Evie’s involvement, or lack of involvement, in what eventually transpired. The approach to the climax is slow, building the tension and a general sense of unease. The violence is described by someone who wasn’t a witness to the crimes, so it isn’t particularly graphic, though the lack of detail somehow makes it seem all the worse.
I had trouble putting The Girls down in the end; even though I wasn’t expecting any big shocks, I just wanted to find out how Evie’s story ended. It’s a truly exceptional book, and I think it’s clear that we can expect great things in the future from Emma Cline.
The Girls by Emma Cline
First published: June 16th 2016
Chatto & Windus
Review copy provided by publisher