“I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls”
Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls may have obvious connections to the Manson Family (the cultish leader, the devoted followers, mass murder in the summer of 1969) but it is much more than sensationalist fiction. At its core, this is an astute examination of teenage girls: a story of female friendship, idolatry and devotion, of emotions as raw and exposed as wounds, of isolation, obsessions, sexual hunger and curiosities intensified with the heat of the long summer months.
In the summer of 1969 Evie is fourteen years old and lives comfortably in “the good part of town” thanks to the legacy of her Grandmother, an actress during Hollywood’s golden age. However recently divorced parents, a mother absorbed by New Age therapies and out-growing her best friend has left Evie seeking something more (“I was waiting for something without knowing what”). Deeply self-critical – “there was no shine of greatness on me” – she is an easy target for predators, a wanderer to be moulded and manipulated, made to believe anything if they tell her what she wants to hear.
Her world changes when she claps eyes on ‘The Girls’ at a summer fair. Cline’s language is love-struck and dreamy, like a thunderbolt from the sky, meriting both an internal and external shift (“there was a subtle rearranging of air”). This is the beginning of Evie’s new obsession; an intense infatuation with the nineteen year old, dark haired Suzanne, the noticeable ringleader of this group of skinny girls with their parted hair and dirty summer clothes, who shoplift groceries and dumpster dive for discarded produce in skips outside restaurants.
Evie offers to steal for them and is soon on their bus to their ranch, described as “an orphanage for horny children”, littered with the skeletons of cars, hangers on, animals and grubby feral children. They tell her that she is a solstice offering to the mysterious Russell (obviously Manson) who resides over the ranch as an emperor or King, his loyal followers falling or clinging to his feet as if he were a deity. He is cooed over, described as ‘a Wizard’ and wields a sinister influence over everyone – men, women and children.
Yet, for Evie, it is never about Russell. It is never about his invisible hold, never about his philosophies, never that he ‘shares’ his women or even what he is capable of making others do. Instead, it’s all about Suzanne whose approval she is desperate to obtain. She loots money for Suzanne’s approval, runs away from home on two occasions and fails se Suzanne’s aloofness as anything other than her mask of protection. It’s an unrequited love affair – a girl who just wants to be seen – yet the relationship makes Evie feel needed and with purpose. She finds her time at the ranch freeing; she can be whoever she wants to be and is able to discard her privilege like a burden she was made to carry all of her life: “I was one of them.”
The brutality and knowledge of the Wonderland murders constantly hovers in the background and the horror is never diminished. Importantly, Cline’s interest is more in the family’s female followers than Manson himself. Although this is obliquely present in The Girls, Russell’s invisible, sinister hold them ensures his hands are kept clean while others do his bidding and the moment of carnage builds with a gripping intensity and inevitable horror. The description of Suzanne, her bloodied hands over a mother and child, is a penetrating, deeply disturbing image.
Cline excels at the small details that others may consider inconsequential – the beauty rituals of girls, the doubts plaguing the female mind – especially Evie’s internal conflict: whether she would have joined in or stopped them – and of strength (“the girls had been stronger than Russell”). The Girls is touted as the read of the summer and it deserves it’s reputation. Last summer Karina Longworth devoted her Old Hollywood Podcast titled ‘You Must Remember This’ to the Manson murders and now Cline has ensured that the ghosts of 1969 remain stronger than ever.