Fourteen-year-old Evie first comes across the girls in a park in her home town of Petaluma, only about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco but which feels a million miles from excitement. It is the summer of 1969, and the hippie counterculture is in full swing. Evie is sexually curious, hungry for love, pissed off with her divorced and self-absorbed parents and chafing at the confines of her middle-class world when she sees them: their wild hair, unkempt clothing and dangerous air of feral sexuality like nothing she’d ever witnessed before. “The sun spiked through the trees, like always – the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets – but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.” The lead girl, the darkly magnetic Suzanne, flashes a nipple, they laugh and then turn into an alley where they dive for discards in a restaurant dumpster.
Evie, bewildered and enthralled, watches them run off, “their hair streaming behind them like flags”, to where a black school bus rolls by to collect them. It is not long before Evie herself is on the bus, both literally and figuratively. Under Suzanne’s wing, she becomes an on-again off-again part of the familial cult led by the charismatic, nihilistic and sexually exploitative Russell – a fictional cipher for Charles Manson. From the first few pages of the book, we understand that, as with Manson, all this will culminate in a brutal and senseless murder of innocents.
Russell’s sexually exploitative and patriarchal rule over his followers is an extreme mirror of the world around it. Evie and her mother must “tiptoe” around her emotionally distant father, who “beat his bare chest in the morning to keep his lungs strong” and whom Evie strives to please by agreeing with his opinions. Later, we witness the presumptuousness of the men her mother dates after the divorce (one even comments on Evie’s nipples) as well as the assumption of superior privilege displayed by boys closer to her own age. They are as trapped by the poses and expectations of traditional masculinity as Russell is by his engorged ego and outraged pride.
We don’t know until the end what part Evie played in the murder, if any, but we know that years later, it still haunts her. Now to all appearances a bland and harmless old woman, she is shocked into confronting her demons and what she calls her “inner rot” by an unexpected encounter. The Girls is a tense and psychologically acute thriller. It is also a dreamy and pitch-perfect evocation of the texture of the late ’60s in California – tiki torches at parties, incense-perfumed rooms, the “shag of tinsel” behind bands playing on television, and even how someone speaking on the phone would absently wind the cord around and around her finger. The Girls is a breathtakingly virtuosic debut by Emma Cline, all the more remarkable given that she is only in her mid-20s.
The Girls also paints an instantly recognisable portrait of painful adolescence and its confusions. At one point, Evie sneaks into the bedroom of her best friend’s teenage brother Peter, the object of her heady infatuation. It “reeked of what I’d later identify as masturbation, a damp rupture in the air”. She clocks the glass of water on the floor “greased with fingerprints”, the collection of river stones, cheap copper bracelet – “all his possessions suffused with a mysterious import”. She takes it all in, the older Evie recalls, “as if I could decode the private meaning of each object, puzzle together the interior architecture of his life”. She observes: “So much of desire, at that age, was a wilful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love.”
Evie’s need shapes itself around Suzanne and acceptance into her world of outlaw glamour. “Girls,” she observes at one point, “are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved.” Even as it becomes clear to Evie that Russell is unstable and violent and that the fragile order of ranch life is breaking down under his paranoia and anger, she is reluctant to separate herself from Suzanne and the other girls, to return, as she puts it earlier in the novel, to the “forlorn guardianship of my own self”.
Cline is a penetrating observer of human frailty, obstinacy and need. When a new suitor offers Evie’s mother a “slimy-looking snow pea” from his fork, Evie watches as she opens her mouth “obediently, like a bird”. But nowhere is the brokenness of existence more apparent than in Evie’s complicated relationship with the troubled but not wholly unsympathetic character of Suzanne. Suzanne’s almost maternal if sexually ambiguous relationship with Evie is at the emotional centre of the book – through her, Evie comes to understand how thin and porous is the line between freedom and enslavement, good and evil.
By bringing the novel into the present day, Cline suggests that despite all the social changes since that time, things haven’t changed all that much. The older Evie recognises aspects of her younger self in the vulnerable and defensive character of Sasha, barely out of her adolescence and hooked up with a drug-dealing boyfriend whom she worships, but who treats her with a careless disrespect.
Remembering how under Russell, the girls of the cult “had stopped being able to make certain judgments, the unused muscle of their ego growing slack and useless”, she observes, “just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself”.
The Girls is a rich and assured, if also tough and unsparing, first novel that in Evie and Suzanne, in particular, gives us some of the most indelible female protagonists in contemporary fiction. CG
Chatto & Windus, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 2, 2016 as "Emma Cline, The Girls". Subscribe here.