- The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, James Rebanks
- Reckoning, Magda Szubansk
- Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, Catriona Mitchell
- The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukhurjee
- When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanthi
- The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clarke
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Bomber: The Whole Story, Mark Thompson
- Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Forgotten Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth, Paula Byrne
- Farewell to the Father, Timothy Elliot
- The Girls, Emma Cline
- The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith
- Truly, Madly, Guilty, Liane Moriarty
- The Toymaker, Liam Pieper
- My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
- Blue Dog, Louis de Bernieres
- Hope Farm, Peggy Frew
- The Muse, Jessie Burton
- The North Water, Ian McGuire
- Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain
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.
- Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner
- Farewell to the Father, Tim Elliot
- The Romanovs, Simon Sebag Montefiore
- Speaking Out, Tara Moss
- When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
- Talking to my Country, Stan Grant
- Beyond Belief, Hugh Mackay
- All My Januaries, Barbara Blackman
- Wasted, Elizabeth Muir
- Eat Local, Brenda Fawdon & Christine Sharp
- The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, Dominic Smith
- My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
- The Bricks that Built the Houses, Kate Tempest
- Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Chris Cleave
- Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blaine
- The Nest, Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney
- The Group, Mary McCarthy
- Our Tiny Useless Hearts, Toni Jordan
- The Dry, Jane Harper
- Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa
- My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
- At the Edge of the Orchard, Tracy Chevalier
- Salt Creek, Lucy Treloar
- Hope Farm, Peggy Frew
- The Life of Elves, Muriel Barberry
- A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
- The Promise Seed, Cass Moriarty
- A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories, Elizabeth Harrower
- The High Places, Fiona McFarlane
- Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido
This month’s author recommendations is from local writer Patrick Holland, who’ll be joining us in-store on April 19th to discuss his upcoming novel One. Click on the image to book tickets to the event!
I read a lot of books at once, bits and pieces of them. Among the most interesting things I’ve read lately are The Collected Stories of Paul Bowles. The stories evoke an atmosphere of North Africa/Tangiers that you feel sure is authentic, even though you’ve never been – and never can go to Tangiers circa 1950. The best stories are a strange as Kipling, but, and this accusation was sometimes levelled at Kipling, the author seems to have no normal human sentiments at all. It’s said the Russian realists devoted themselves to objectivity, but we all know what kind of men Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were i.e. good men. I have no idea how Bowles feels on any moral issue, at times he’s properly frightening in his coldness, and yet, the stories are incredibly compelling, and the strange distance he puts you at, no doubt contributes to this.
On the other hand, also on Africa (I’m planning to go soon), I’ve been reading Ryszard Kapuściński’s book of travel essays, In the Shadow of the Sun. It’s easily the best travel book I’ve ever read, and I wish I’d read it before I wrote Riding the Trains in Japan. I realise now, the aesthetic principles that govern Kapuściński’s book are the ones I was trying to follow. I love Hemingway and Okri on Africa, but Kapuściński makes you breathe the air and taste the water.
The other book I’ve been picking up when I can is Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji. I’ve spent plenty of time in the places this – perhaps the first novel ever written – takes place in. But apart from that simple joy of reading about places you know, I enjoy Murasaki’s weaving of plotlines, concerning dozens of characters, and the minimalist poetry she retains throughout. The effect is completely immersive. Like cycling up a mounting, reading Genji you forgot your troubles for a bit.
Ah, and I’m also reading Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters. I’ve come really late to Dessaix – this is the first of his I’ve ever read, and though I’m only about thirty pages in, it’s already an enthralling meditation. It’s the sort of book that blows any preconceived ideas you have about the thematic and stylistic parameters of Australian Literature out the window.