‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline has been one of the most eagerly anticipated debut novels of the year. Set in California in 1969, it is a semi-fictionalised account of a group of young women including fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd who fall under the spell of Russell Hadrick, a failed musician and Charles Manson-like cult leader. However, it is Evie’s awe towards Suzanne, one of Russell’s followers, which becomes the main focus of the story rather than her encounters with Russell himself.
Cline has reportedly bagged a $2 million three book deal, a sum of money virtually unheard of in the publishing industry today especially for an unknown debut novelist still in her mid-twenties. Early praise is being spread by everyone from Lena Dunham to Salman Rushdie. Film rights have already been optioned by producer Scott Rudin and the novel has been featured in pretty much all of the “ones to watch” lists for 2016. Hype doesn’t really get much bigger than this.
Thankfully, ‘The Girls’ does merit the attention it has received, although not always for the reasons I had expected. Despite the continuing public fascination surrounding the murders committed by Manson’s followers, Cline cleverly avoids sensationalising the events in her novel while still showing the reader the dark side of life in the commune. Her particular strengths lie in her minute observations about the self-obsessed naivety and insecurity of teenage girls and how Evie is manipulated by those around her and why she is drawn towards them in the first place. Evie’s feelings towards Suzanne in particular are very complex and Cline presents this more subtly than a straightforward infatuation.
The interludes set in the present day allow the main part of the story to be told in flashbacks as a middle-aged Evie remembers the events of her youth which still fascinate the people around her. For all their grisly details, the murders themselves when they finally take place are actually one of the less compelling aspects of the book. The story doesn’t deviate very much from what happened in the Manson cult so those already familiar with the details of the infamous real-life massacre will find there are few surprises as far as the main plot is concerned. Nevertheless, Cline’s focus on Evie’s character development rather than the cult itself ensures that the inevitable conclusion still offers some interesting revelations.
I initially feared that ‘The Girls’ might be overpowered by nostalgia but there is enough substance and raw talent here to justify why it is going to be one of the most talked-about books of the summer. I look forward to reading whatever Cline produces next as she is indeed “one to watch”.
‘The Girls’ will be published this week in the United Kingdom. Many thanks to Random House UK, Chatto & Windus for the review copy.