In a case like the 1969 Manson Family murders a lot of focus has been centred on leader Charles Manson, his background and his bizarre ideas. Less emphasis has been given to what would motivate young women to follow such a fanatic and commit such horrendous acts of violence. In Emma Cline's debut novel “The Girls” she creates a situation which highly resembles the Manson cult and crime, but gives voice to fourteen year old girl Evie Boyd who is drawn into becoming a part of this group. Moving back and forth between the summer of 69 and a point many years later when the crime has become notorious, Cline gives Evie's account of the inner workings of this Californian quasi-commune and why she becomes involved with them. With great insight and sensitivity she writes about female adolescent development to create a hypnotic and powerful tale.
Evie comes from an upper-middle class background and lives with her single mother Jean. Her long-time friend Connie has shrugged her off in the way that friends sometimes do around this age when our development causes us to grow apart from those we were at one time intensely close to. Jean is more concerned with her own love life and building her own self confidence than caring for her daughter. So Evie is somewhat isolated struggling to understand who she is and what this new body is that she's growing into. Like many adolescents, she learns from magazine and the media that she should work to make herself attractive: “the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” At that time, boys weren't held to the same standards and so don't feel the same level of self consciousness. She remarks “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love.” There's a sense that if only they can find someone to recognize and value them then they will have worth in the world. It leads Evie to long for a role model to look up to and she finds it when she sees a confident black-haired girl named Suzanne.
Cline describes very well that feeling we have as teenagers where we become so enamoured by someone we want to do whatever we can to be close to and be seen by them. She inveigles her way into Suzanne's circle of friends and the ranch commune she lives at centred around the charismatic Russell. But, for Evie, Suzanne is always her focus. She's powerfully drawn to how Suzanne and her friends “were sure of what they were together”. Evie believes that there must be a point when your identity becomes a solid knowable thing “As if there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be revealed.” Of course, in reality our identities are constantly shifting as we continue to grow and change throughout our lives, but a vulnerable girl like Evie has no way of knowing this without guidance.
There's a section I love where Cline also gets at that teenage feeling of wanting to be numbed. She references “Valley of the Dolls” and that desire for drugged stasis and Evie's wish for “my body kept alive by peaceful, reliable machines, my brain resting in watery space, as untroubled as a goldfish in a glass bowl.” Rather than face the difficult task of understanding who she is and what she wants as she grows into her adulthood she'd rather be unconscious and wake up at some later stage fully formed. It's a powerful notion and gives one perspective on why teenagers in particular are perhaps so drawn to the blissful effects of drugs and alcohol.
Cline also has a powerful way of describing the psychological impact of sex at this age. Evie has a number of sexual encounters which show her natural curiosity, the draw of pleasure and a desire for closeness more than a wish for the physical act itself. Her wish to be near Suzanne produces complex feelings. Men such as Russell have a persuasive way of psychologically manipulating young women into participating in acts they aren't ready for when they aren't outright forcing them to have sex with them. After the fact, Evie expects there to be a shift in the world to match the shift in her own post-sexual mindset: “I wanted the world to reorder itself visibly around the change, like a mend marking a tear.” This strongly describes the way we want the world to substantiate the confusion and internal changes that occur after such a significant life experience.
Although this novel is centred around a violent incident and flashes of this horrendous crime are shown, “The Girls” is more about the incremental stages of adolescent development. Emma Cline's writing reminds me somewhat of Joyce Carol Oates for the way she captures this experience so well while also creating vividly rendered characters, scenes and metaphors. There is a relatable intensity to Evie's psychology as she is not innocent, but stumbles towards finding what she wants in life and can be persuaded into discarding any sense of morality in favour of being accepted by people she idolizes. This is an intense, insightful and engaging novel.