Sarah Laing reviews The Girls by American author Emma Cline, hyped as the next big thing in US writing.
After I finished reading Emma Cline’s The Girls, I googled her. I have this notion that proper reviewers meditate on a book in a hermetically sealed intellectual space, sipping green tea and arranging river stones as they form their opinions, uninfluenced by the hype. Because there has been a lot of hype. Cline’s the latest brilliant young thing. She’s the hot summer read, the subject of a bidding war that resulted in a two million dollar book deal. She had the Big Idea, so obvious we’re all kicking ourselves that we didn’t come up with it – a novel based on the Manson murders – and the language to dispatch it with. But I wanted to see what other people thought, in case my response was unreliable, coloured by my jealousy of someone living out my youthful literary fantasy.
What I did find was her garden shed. I’d read about this in another interview, and my own shed sprang to mind. There would be that smell – a little bit damp, with bags of phosphate and half-used packets of snail bait. There’d be tools scabbed with dirt, stained gloves, a rotary mower fringed with last month’s dried out grass clippings. The light would be dim, the floorboards splintery. It would be pretty miserable to write in – too cold, no internet access, spiders. Still, nothing like a little suffering to sharpen the senses.
But no, it isn’t that kind of shed. Cline may have grown up on a vineyard in northern California, the granddaughter of the Jacuzzi inventor, but now she lives in Brooklyn. Her shed is renovated and multilevel. There are pictures of Tom Cruise looking like James Dean, dead cacti balanced on Salinger books and a Persian carpet on the floor. It’s two blocks from the Gowanus canal, so it does sometimes smell, but not of potting mix. California is ideal for those hyper-sensual, lotus eater days where you lose track of time. New York, apparently, is good for work.
Lots of reviewers are in awe of Emma Cline. She refracts her sentences, using extraordinary verbs, nouns and images. The girls, those in thrall of Russell, the Charles Manson figure, are “tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.” They’re “sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching in water.” And it’s the girls that 14-year-old Evie Boyd is seduced by, in particular Suzanne. Suzanne is “raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy, prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty.” She’s not beautiful but that makes her more so, or perhaps it’s the intensity of Evie’s gaze that makes her burn so bright: “Even the pimples I’d seen on her jaw seemed obliquely beautiful, the rosy flame an inner excess made visible.”
Evie’s mother is the daughter of a famous film star, and she’s reinventing herself. “She kept changing, day by day. Little things. She bought handcrafted earrings from women in her encounter group, came back swinging primitive bits of wood from her ears, enameled bracelets the color of afterdinner mints jittery on her wrists.” Dinner is now “dilled miso soup from her macrobiotic cookbook.” Gone are the steaks her father used to turn on the barbecue, along with her father, who is now living with a much younger woman he hired as his assistant. Evie’s mother needs space for this self-reinvention; also to bring home her new boyfriends. She lets Evie drift through the hazy summer of ’69, imagining her to be staying with her best friend Connie.
But Connie and Evie are now estranged, and Evie has hopped on the black bus filled with Russell’s girls, on the way to the ranch. “She’s gonna be our offering”, says one. “We’re gonna sacrifice her.” Evie doesn’t take heed – instead she is pleased to belong. Cline has a trick of being there in the moment, immersed in the visceral sexuality and malleability of Evie’s teenage self, as well as reminding us that there is an older Evie, looking back at this episode, trying to explain how she became embroiled in a notorious cult and mass murder. “It would occur to me later that Suzanne was the only one who didn’t seem overjoyed to come upon me, there on the road. Something formal and distant in her affect. I can only think it was protective.”
The older Evie is, however, problematic. She stays in borrowed houses, eating “in the blunt way I had as a child—a glut of spaghetti, mossed with cheese. The nothing jump of soda in my throat.” She is stuck forever in the murder scene. A holding pattern, a human bracket, a narrative device, she’s interrupted from her reverie by the house owner’s son, who reminds her of her notoriety. Evie did not take part in the murders. But – in the right circumstances – she might have done. She is weak, or so we are told. She is not pretty enough to excuse her average grades, and although people say she looks like her famous grandmother, she thinks they’re lying. One reviewer described this part of the novel as “a palette cleanser”, and perhaps that’s its function – it gives us a break from the drug-addled intensity of her youth – but it also seems tacked on, and Evie’s passivity is at odds with her bold, risk-seeking youth. What happened to her adulthood? Did she not work or meet anybody or have children? Perhaps we are meant to imagine this, but it seems as if Evie’s life stalled when Suzanne kicked her out of the car on the way to the massacre.
And that is one betrayal of many. Although the story focuses primarily on relationships between women, the predatory older men lurking in the background, the women are also the ones turning the knives. Connie ditches Evie for May, the dentist’s daughter; Evie’s mother neglects her for her new boyfriends; the present-day Sasha betrays Evie’s confidences to her unpredictable boyfriend – nobody is constant. And of course it’s the girls who are despatched to perform the set piece, the murders based on the famous Sharon Tate one.
The language too becomes troubling. At first I was dazzled by those jostling sentences – how the fly wings sparkled, how the gum was cloudy, and so was the loose, sunburnt skin – but I was worn out by the end of the book. I wanted some plain prose. Perhaps this is symptomatic of my age – in my twenties I too forraged for the most startling images. When, at a writing workshop, Curtis Sittenfeld advised us to tell our story as directly as possible, using no more than one robust metaphor per page, I viewed this with suspicion. I wonder if my younger self, the one that hoped to be the subject of bidding wars, would have adored this book. Would have gone on to write Emma Cline fan fiction, employing her macro vision, mucking out the pores of the world. See, I’m trying to do it now.
Still – it’s a fine book, a spell, a dreamy conjuring of that summer of ’69. A companion-piece to Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, Emma Cline’s got two more books to deliver for her two million dollar deal, and I will read her again, because she has a sharp way of seeing things.
The Girls (Chatto & Windus, $37) by Emma Cline is available at Unity Books.