Everyone has fleeting memories associated with a particular summer. Whether that be a song, a holiday, excursions with friends, you recall it perfectly and you are transported to the summer of whatever year it was like it was yesterday. For me, the memory of my summer in 2016 will be reading the phenomenal 'The Girls', Emma Cline's debut novel. Set in the hazy summer of 1969, the book depicts a fictionalised account of the Charles Manson cult and subsequent murders, all through the eyes of a young teenage girl, somewhat trapped between childhood and womanhood, who becomes captivated with the group of girls that dominate the cult. Basically, this is an incredibly compelling novel that everyone should read this summer.
Cline makes it clear that this isn't about Manson, or this in case Russell, it is instead about, as the title suggests, the girls that hover throughout the novel, wearing their femininity and sexuality on their sleeve, stroking marks of independence all the while still seemingly seeking Russell's approval. Cline painfully captures the essence of being a young girl waiting to be approved by men, "that was part of being a girl-" Cline writes, "you were resigned to whatever feedback you got", but it is not Russell who captures the affections of our protagonist, Evie, it is the mysteriously seductive Suzanne, with her "smile blooming in me like a firework, losing it's coloured smoke." The focus shifts on the relationships between women, not necessarily romantic or sexual, but the strong, empowering bonds they create. Evie longs for more than her dull friendship with Connie, subtle with dark stabs at jealously and female rivalry, vying for older boys attention. When she meets Suzanne, and subsequently spends time in her company, she blossoms and takes her first steps into becoming a woman, who we actually meet a many points in the story, as the narrative flips between present day (more or less) and 1969. This is by no means a hindrance, but rather more an insight into the adult Evie looking back and reflecting on the choices she did or should have made.
The complexity, sadness and fluctuating emotions are beautifully captured by Cline in exploring what it is like to be a teenage girl, who so often in literature are dismissed as shallow or emotionally unstable. Evie's exploration of sexuality are so harrowing and uncomfortable at times but it feels so much more real, and Cline allows us a true insight into the mind of a teenage girl, of how Evie feels she must change herself, mentally and physically for men, as that is the supposed priority. This, contrasted with the rural imagery of the Californian suburbs and prose so searing with the flames of summer that you can almost feel it leap from the page, makes the novel so immediate and captivating. What is more heartbreaking is the present day Evie, alone in a house that is intruded upon by a young teenage boy, Julian and his girlfriend, Sasha, recognising how these attitudes still remain. Sasha, is denied a voice when discussing her own body and her boyfriend speaks for her, "'She doesn't like her tits' Julian said, pulsing the back of her neck, 'but I tell her they're nice.'" It made me extremely sad, and angry that this is the reality that most teenage girls face today, who face womanhood with such extreme frailty, but Cline must be commended for voicing, I can only imagine, the thoughts of what is like to be a girl in a male driven world.
Which really, is the ironic thing as the novel dominates with female characters, all given a backstory and a well-crafted identity "trying to campaign for her own existence." The real girls that lived in Manson's shadow were most likely dismissed, or not even talked about, though they were the ones who carried out the actual murder. This is cleverly referenced toward the end of the novel, the present day Evie referring to herself as "the bystander, a fugitive without a crime" but notes how "even toward the end, the girls had been stronger than Russell". One again, Cline grasps the focus away from the man who is at the centre of the story but is superfluous to drive it forward, instead she hands that baton to the girls, and she them a voice, the girls of past and present; "We all want to be seen."
Rich with scorching imagery of the summer, painfully honest in its exploration of womanhood, adolescence and sexuality and beautifully crafted with free-flowing language, 'The Girls' demands to be read in one sitting, sat under the blaze of sultry sun. Easily, my book of the summer.