The Girls shimmers with a dream-like tautness in both its writing and its plot, and I found myself pulled through the book by both, almost unable to stop reading. Cline is young, and this is her first book, but she writes with the aplomb of an experienced writer; her sentences are imbued with a sense of sweet and sour, of pushing you up and pulling you down, of freshness and of dread.
The beauty of the prose aside, Cline writes about teenage girls so well that I was submerged within the story, within my memories of being a teenager, desperate to impress and to fit in. I might have been appalled by some of Evie’s behaviour (the main character), but I always understood why she was driven to do what she did.
Written in the light of the Charles Manson murders, the story centres around Evie Boyd, a fifteen-year-old girl living in California in 1969. Her parents are recently divorced and self-focused. Evie’s life is small and limited; she spends every afternoon hanging out with her best friend, Connie, filling her life with those particular inanities that come with being a teenager:
Every day after school, we’d click seamlessly into the familiar track of the afternoon. Waste hours at some industrious task: following Vidal Sassoon’s sugggestions for raw egg smoothies to strengthen hair or picking at blackheads with the tip of a sterilized sewing needle…We licked batteries to feel a metallic jolt on the tongue, rumored to be one-eighteenth of an orgasm.
It is with these sort of details that Cline so evokes the agonies of being a teenager, when she describes how Evie tries to be noticed in the way she dresses, how she drinks and smokes to fit in older kids, how she creeps into Connie’s brother’s bed at night; but how she also tries for parts of her not to be noticed, such as covering her pimples with thick base and standing with her stomach pulled in.
With these deep feelings of insecurity and boredom filling her life, when Evie one day spots ‘the girls’, she is instantly drawn to them, for being so totally different from anything in her little world, especially the prettiest one, the black-haired girl: There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her, a dirty smock dress barely covering her ass … They (the girls) were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.
After longing to enter into the girls’ world and obsessing over Suzanne with the black hair, Evie finally gets herself invited to the ranch, down a long dirt track and deep into the hills outside town. Here a group – mainly women and a few feral children – lives under the thrall of Russell, whose name Evie hears mentioned with reverence before she meets him, and whose focus dissolves her loneliness by making her feel special at last, giving her the attention she’s needed all her teenage years.
Even later, even knowing the things I knew, it was impossible, that first night, to see beyond the immediate. Russell’s buckskin shirt, smelling of flesh and rot and soft as velvet. Suzanne’s smile blooming in me like a firework, losing its colored smoke, its pretty, drifting cinders.
Suzanne and Russell’s attention, and the inclusiveness of the group on the ranch, fills that emotional vacuum within Evie, while also giving her an opportunity to exact revenge her mother’s neglect and ignorance of the life Evie is now living.
Cline’s story is shocking within itself, (yet totally believable looking back at the Manson cult), but because Cline describes with such deep understanding Evie’s teenage years, I could believe – with horror – the sacrifices Evie was willing to take. On finishing the novel, I was filled with admiration for the skill with which Cline has written this book. I hope there are many more to come from her.