A Dark Infatuation
This debut novel by Emma Cline harks back to the fierce memory of a young teenage girl’s intoxicating summer in the late 1960s
Review by Izzy Ashton
Emma Cline got inside my head. She made me squirm and wince and feel every raw emotion out there, not in a solely good way but I was completely captivated. Cline has been hailed as a genius, a literary great before she’s even got going. The power of her writing and the beauty of the book are captured right from the opening line: “I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.” It’s the sound of them that catches yours and Evie’s, the 14-year-old protagonist’s, attention. But it’s the sight of those girls that keeps you locked onto their story.
How could you possibly turn away from a book that opens like that? Who are they? Where did they come from? Evie asks the simple and yet incredibly complex questions that anyone would think when they stumble across someone they can’t turn away from. Her life trips off the page, the images run along like you’re looking through a viewfinder; you see them projected onto the page in front of you.
The incredible dexterity of Cline’s language and the way she immerses you inside Evie’s mind means that you can sense Evie’s desperate uncertainty and Cline makes you feel it too. We are introduced to the story from the point of view of Evie as a middle-aged woman, glancing tentatively back into that summer and back into her teenage mind. Evie as a teen is so caught up in her own insular world and in her desire to be liked. Everyone reading this knows what it is to either be or have been a teenager. The way that nothing else matters except who you’re spending time with, who’s catching your attention and who’s looking at you.
The story ebbs and flows around the tale of the young Evie, bored during the summer holidays before she’s about to be sent off to boarding school. Over the course of the book, Evie’s parents are going through an awkward divorce, with her father moving in with his secretary, leaving Evie to occupy her childhood home with her mother and a host of her mother’s various and unsuitable boyfriends. She is angry at her parents and at the world, at the boring normality of her life, sitting in the dentist’s chair, listening to the catchy but lame music on her mother’s radio. She is willing to do anything different because the unknown is romantic and leads her down the wild, “hidden passage behind the bookcase.”
Her life has taken on a predictable monotony and she longs to get away. Her escape comes in the form of these laughing girls, who, it soon turns out, are part of a clan of youngsters living on a ranch, under the watchful gaze of their hypnotically potent leader, Russell. Evie can’t help but be drawn into the horrors and excitement of the ranch, inevitably getting herself caught up in the horrific drama that unfurls.
Evie forms an instant attachment to Susanne, the spinning orb at the heart of the group of girls seen at the start, all dark hair, flashing eyes and untouchable nonchalance. Evie’s adoration that she bestows upon an unknowing elder, willing them to notice her, conjures up so many memories of similar occurrences throughout my own teenage years. Evie wants to be a part of the older girls’ world, no matter what that membership might entail.
Cline addresses the thoughts, worries and strange inklings that you had when you were that age but they’re the ones that you didn’t know how to articulate. When you’re a teenager, you feel like it’s impossible to put those kinds of thoughts into words. But somehow Cline does it with ease. She finds the words that I spent my entire teenage years looking for. The nature of Cline’s writing is such that she provides you with the images and sentences you didn’t even know you were missing.
This summer, for Evie, is the moment, that in-between moment, when she’s no longer a girl but can’t really call herself a woman: “They [the girls] were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time.” It’s the moment at which you’re made excited and uneasy by your newfound adulthood: “The adult mass of cleavage pleased me.” Cline describes the power that Evie’s body holds, a power that Evie learns to use to manipulate males around her.
By giving a 14-year-old girl this level of sexual authority over her own body, Cline insinuates difficult questions about the way that young teenage girls are viewed within society. They are seemingly too young to be an object of desire and yet they carry themselves to be noticed, putting themselves and those around them in an often-challenging position.
This is a book that features a man at its epicentre but it’s the girls that are at the heart of the story. It’s about female relationships much more than it is the story of one man at the centre of their world. The men cause pain and destruction: Russell, Evie’s dad, Mitch (the ‘famous’ singer), Frank (her mum’s new boyfriend). But there is no focus on the pain or on the men – the focus is on the female relationships that the men’s behaviour affects: “Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.”
Cline’s writing will affect you, in not always a way that feels comfortable. But it is one of the most powerful explorations into the mind and life of a teenage girl that I have ever read. Prepare to miss your stop on the tube, ignore all social commitments and shun that last slice of pizza as “The Girls” totally captivates and mesmerises you this summer.
“The Girls” by Emma Cline, Penguin Random House, June 2016