"Already he'd become an expert in female sadness"
Where to go after last week's claustrophobic and chilling Icelandic crime drama 'Snowblind'? The heat of free spirited California couldn't be further removed! Emma Cline's debut novel is set mostly in California in the late 1960's and concerns a young girl, Evie, whose obsession with a group of girls leads her to a ranch where a collective family, of sorts, live together in a commune. Sounds familiar? The Girls is certainly inspired to some degree by the notorious case of the 'Manson family murders' and their cult leader Charles Manson.
But to say that the novel is a straight fictional account of the Manson case is to do Emma Cline a disservice for The Girls is a coming-of-age tragedy with more than a nod to Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides.
The bright and over exposed image on the cover of the UK hard-back edition makes The Girls an inevitable summer read for anyone trawling the better book stores on the high street. This cover perfectly evokes the sun drenched California setting about which Cline so articulately writes. The prose on each page is crisp and arid with the faintest fragrance of a burnt joss stick.
The narrative is told in flashback from the point of view of an older Evie who looks back to the summer of '69 and a time when she was closer than most will ever be to the kind of sensational headlines that define a generation. Evie is and was an outsider who exists on the fringes of other peoples joy and loss. Although she opens up at times Evie will always be a closed book drawn to the enigma of other people.
I was pretty hooked for two thirds of this novel, these are the parts that deal with Evie's discovery of the girls, her induction to the ranch and early relationship with Russell (the supposed Manson character). Cline expertly builds believable characters without a hint of cliche but the trouble with the novel is that the final chapters fly by without the perfect pacing on the earlier parts. There is a unnecessary rush to resolve the story which might be to avoid too much comparison with the Manson murders. Or perhaps Evie's distance from events at the ranch is ultimately a dead end in narrative terms?
In any case The Girls is a great debut from a new writer who having already had work published in the Paris Review and Granta will be around to stay.