It’s appropriate that the cover of Emma Cline’s startling The Girls features a blurb from Lena Dunham, creator of the similarly named HBO comedy. Like Dunham, Cline’s fictional world is one fixated on the nuance of emerging womanhood, where experience is not just perceived but mapped through the workings of the body. The process is messy, it is frequently cruel, and requires careful artistry on the part of the author, a surgical knack for differentiating what her readers know and what her characters are allowed to perceive. Though she makes no claim as brazen as Dunham’s infamous “voice of a generation” line, Cline succeeds, through precision and insight, in achieving much the same thing. This is not a novel about girlhood, though its femininity is essential. It is a novel about being alive.
When we are introduced to the protagonist, Evie, a fourteen-year-old Californian beset with domestic turbulence, she is as much a blank canvas as Twilight’s soulless Bella Swan. The difference is perspective: Cline understands what lesser writers of both sexes fail to appreciate. People, at Evie’s age, are essentially nondescript, devoid of experience but newly acquainted with consciousness, the desire to be formed into something more than what they are. Much of the hype surrounding The Girls focuses on the context in which Evie experiences this actualisation. Evie, on the cusp of adulthood in the late sixties, is indoctrinated into a Manson Family inspired cult.
One of the many remarkable things about The Girls is the way in which Cline directs Evie down this path, navigating the pitfalls of cliché and melodrama so that the cult—which one imagines featured prominently in the elevator pitch that won Cline an advance to the tune of two million dollars—is, in a sense, almost incidental. More importantly, its leader, the obliquely drawn Russell, is depicted not so much as the sun around which the titular girls orbit, but as a bad musician, a delusional egotist. Cline, so sparing in her characterisation of the supposed catalyst for the novel’s action, must find another reason for Evie to become submerged in this sepia-drenched world of new age fanaticism. Her reason gives the novel not only its title, but its window into the human psyche.
Though Evie’s view of the ranch on which Russell’s acolytes make their home is willfully airbrushed, she scrutinises its inhabitants more closely. In the world of the ranch there is a secret world of girls, who share beds and clothes, the man they are all drawn to. It is this world that Cline etches with candid detail; “ankles gruff with stubble, or the pin dots of blackheads.” The relationships between the girls are rich and unknowable, their dynamic far more sophisticated than Evie herself is aware.
Chief amongst the girls is the charismatic Suzanne, a hard, unforgiving creature described in an early encounter as resembling John Huston’s daughter. Suzanne is Russell’s lieutenant; she is Evie’s protector and idol. Evie covets her dangerous, unapologetic femininity, comparing her to Connie, the classmate she was once friends with: “how she and I had watched television until we got blinky headaches and popped pimples on each other’s backs in the harsh light of the sun.” Suzanne’s world is more fluid, steeped in the ambiguities of sex and violence, a conflation of pleasure and pain that Cline compares to the abrupt pulling of a ponytail. It is her inability to comprehend this world that feeds Evie’s desperation to inhabit it.
Cline’s aesthetic is a Romantic one: the beauty of her California is underscored, even enhanced by its decay. Aside from the literal dereliction of the ranch, with its burnt-out cars and appalling standards of hygiene, there is a taint of evil that infects the place, and Cline takes no pains to conceal its eventual outcome. True to their real life counterparts, Russell’s followers commit a murder: an act of mindless, orgiastic violence that Evie herself is not privy to.
The tale of girlhood is punctuated occasionally by the present day, in which Evie is a middle-aged woman, still pursued by the phantoms of her adolescence. In these passages Cline, so masterful in her characterisation of the young Evie, stretches her talents even further, seamlessly re-sculpting her voice to feel heavier with experience. Though the older Evie’s scenes as a sort of hermit living in the borrowed house of a formerly close friend are less compulsively readable than her time on the ranch, they provide a necessary and effective counterweight to the high-gloss sugar rush of youth: a sense that, even despite all she has experienced, there is still so much for her to fear.
That Cline succeeds in sustaining tension throughout the book despite the reader’s full knowledge of the grizzly outcome is a testament to her subtle and inventive approach to her subject. There is exactly one open display of violence, in which an irate Russell slaps one of his disciples, though many more scenes carry the implication of it, lurking just beyond the sun-drenched periphery. Evie is, undeniably, a fanatic, but not of the sort one might expect her to be. She worships not Russell, or even Suzanne, but the intoxicating promise of a shared girlhood: desperate to believe that, in a state of flux, when merely existing is an act of survival, there is a possibility she is not alone. It is the thesis of all great literature, the syntax of the language of girls.