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Cult of personality - 'The Girls'

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Long-awaited debut novel exceeds the hype

When a work of popular art a book, a movie, a television show, an album is subject to massive publicity in advance of its release, it can be nearly impossible for said work to live up to the hype. A bar set too high almost inevitably leads to disappointment.

However, on increasingly rare occasions, a work not only lives up to the hype, but actually transcends it.

Emma Cline's 'The Girls' (Random House, $27) was the subject of hyperbolically-powered scrutiny; a fictionalized riff on Charles Manson, the women who surrounded him and the Sharon Tate murders, the book was the subject of a bidding war involving a dozen publishers and resulting in a three-book deal worth seven figures. The film rights were purchased before the book even went to the auction block. Could the book really be worth all this fuss?

The answer is an emphatic yes.

'The Girls' is the story of young Evie Boyd, a 14-year-old girl living in California during the tumultuous summer of 1969. She's got pretty standard teenage worries she doesn't have many friends, she's worried about boarding school, she struggles to get along with her divorced parents.

However, that all changes when she catches sight of a group of girls raiding a dumpster. Wild and free, they are everything that Evie yearns to be particularly their dark-haired and enigmatic leader. She's not at all sure what they're about, only that she desperately wants to be part of it.

She gets her chance thanks to a conveniently-timed broken bike chain. A bus awash in sloppily-rendered Free Love imagery stops to help; onboard is Evie's dark-haired muse, a 19-year-old named Suzanne.

Suzanne and the rest pull Evie into their sphere one whose orbit centers on the mysterious and charming Russell, an older fellow who has used a combination of charisma and manipulation to bring together a number of similarly lost souls at his ranch. He's even on the verge of cutting a record deal thanks to music star Mitch Lewis.

Evie is quickly accepted, earning her keep by stealing from her mother and swelling the communal coffers every time she returns to the ranch. While Russell is supposedly the center of it all, Evie is drawn in by Suzanne though that isn't enough to prevent Russell from using her in a similar fashion to the rest of his disciples.

Blinded by her desires and devotion, Evie doesn't see the darkness descending. She can't see the banality in Russell's platitudes or the anger that roils just beneath the surface anger that results in an act of horrifying violence.

Interspersed throughout, we spend time with the Evie of today, a middle-aged woman whose has spent her life drifting, unable to escape the shadows of her past. Her tangential involvement has largely kept her out of the lurid true-crime stories and the history books, but her connection to them all (but especially Suzanne) remains. An encounter with a girl not much older than Evie was then brings all the memories of that time good and bad alike bubbling back to the surface.

'The Girls' pulls off quite a trick it is both a coming-of-age story and a dark memoir. Evie's story is both of the experience and of the aftermath of the experience, and while the story of 1969 is the more compelling, one could argue that the present-day narrative is more emotionally fraught despite a general lack of affect. Alternately sweeping and stomach-churning, we see and feel the trap closing on young Evie even as she remains blissfully, almost righteously unaware.

By pulling the ripcord before plunging into full-on Manson-esque horrors, Cline allows for the maintenance of empathy Evie never bears witness to the truly evil depths to which Russell is capable of sinking, and so she can be forgiven. She was led astray, yes, but she escaped albeit not necessarily willingly before sacrificing her humanity in the rain of starry-eyed violence and ill-spilled blood that consumed her companions.

As for the writing itself, well it's exquisite. The narrative alone is worth the price of admission, but Cline's stylistic choices are captivating in every sense; the beauty of her exquisitely-crafted sentences working in jarring harmony with the sad brutality inherent to the story. Cline captures perfectly what it means to be lost and searching for meaningand the unfortunate choices that can spring from that search.

'The Girls' is every bit the book that it has been purported to be one well worth every iota of attention and acclaim that it has received. It is powerful and genuine, beautiful and haunting in short, an utterly stunning piece of work. Simply magnificent.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:46

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