Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

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“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.

Barbara Payton: I Am Not Ashamed

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Envious kids used to ask me in those days, “How do you become a star? Is it talent? Pretty face? Is it body? Is it who you know? Who you sleep with?” well, it’s a little of each and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Barbara Payton was, to put it mildly, a hot mess. The once beautiful twenty year-old – who acted opposite  James Cagney and Gregory Peck – saw her star value not so much plummet but shatter. Her final years were spent destitute, drunk and turning tricks in seedy apartment, surrounded by rats and empty wine bottles. Payton did it all, saw it all, and lost it all.

In 1963 Payton’s perfectly titled memoir “I Am Not Ashamed” (ghost written by Leo Guild) was released.  The book is perfect Hollywood memoir – hugely more satisfying than any number of gossip columns that flood the Internet and fill today’s newspaper shelves. Early on when she brazenly declares, “I was the queen bee, the nuts and boiling hot, you know this is going to be a treat.

Simply put, Payton was a bombshell, she knew she was a bombshell and she lived her live according to these rules. She did everything and I mean everything! She went from the glamour-puss ‘iced in diamonds’ at film premieres to turning tricks in her seedy apartment where she was knifed in the stomach by a client. Her affair with the actor Tom Neal – while she was married to the French star Franchot Tone – resulted in a fight between the two men and Franchot’s hospitalisation. She was even arrested for stealing liquor on Sunset Boulevard.

Yet she did not suffer fools gladly and knew how to hustle with the best of them. In some instances we see her assume the role of the fairy Godmother for younger co-stars, calling out inappropriate male behaviour and protecting girls as no one had done to her. She wanted to help out those on their way up, only too aware of an industry that would gobble you up and spit you as soon as looks fade or they grew bored of you. If only she had taken her own advice….

The inevitable happened: she got older and weight gain was part of her problem. No doubt this was aggravated by her bottle-of-wine-a-day habit. She failed to care for herself as she had cared for others. Instead, she plunged into a Rosé wine addiction that only added to – and addled – her downfall.

Despite her numerous mistakes you cannot help but want her to succeed; to have made the comeback she talks about and instead of falling into the tragic Hollywood trap of addiction and sleaze. You wanted her to be guided, as she wanted to guide others, and to stage that epic comeback that she talked about instead of dying of heart and liver failure at the tragically young age of thirty-nine.

“I Am Not Ashamed” is a fascinated read that exposes Hollywood in all of its sordid glory. Payton’s memoir could be a blueprint for all future young female stars: don’t let them suffer and follow in her footsteps.

 

“I Am Not Ashamed” is available now from spurleditions.com

 

Book Review: ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ by Alan Light

 

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Nina Simone was a fascinating woman whose life and music continues to intrigue and captivate. I have always loved her voice, marvelled at her piano skills, and admired how she used lyrics to seduce in one song and damn in the next. Yet, appallingly, my knowledge of Simone’s life and character remained appallingly limited.

I unsurprisingly lapped up Liz Garbus’ Oscar-nominated, Netflix produced What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) on its release. The warts-and-all film shows Simone’s undeniable talent – a musical genius whose audiences would be spellbound in her presence – yet whose personal life was extremely troubled and unsettled (loneliness, physical and chemical abuse, illness). She made mistakes. She was a difficult character. Yet she was a transcendental performer whose talent shines brightly on the screen. Would a written biography be able to capture her musical talent in quite the same way?

Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymon and raised in Tryon, North Carolina, was a musical prodigy who dreamed of becoming the world’s first black classical pianist. Playing the piano at her preacher mother’s sermons brought her to the attention of congregation member Muriel Mazzanovich – aka “Miss Mazzy” – her first piano teacher who co-founded a fund for Eunice’s musical education. This fund supported her move to New York to attend New York’s Juilliard School. As the fund dwindled she tried, and was rejected, for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Although she never fully recovered from this unfortunate incident, we can pinpoint this event as changing the course of the young woman’s life, initiating her evolution from Eunice Waymon to Nina Simone.

Alan Light’s biography of the singer, also titled ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?,” is an engrossing companion piece. Due to Simone’s electrifying performances, some individuals may find themselves preferring the faster paced, snappier, musically charged film to the written version. However, the book is richer in detail and includes periods of Simone’s life which Garbus, due to time restraints, naturally omitted. Light utilises additional first hand accounts by those closest to Simone – her musicians, ex-husband Andy Stroud, and her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly – providing a full yet stark account of this flawed but extraordinary artist whose life included numerous love affairs, struggle with sexuality, activism in the fight for civil rights, and career highs and lows. Fundamentally, Light paints Simone as a woman who never recovered from the lack of attention and affection her mother showed her in childhood, setting a precedent that would greatly influence Simone’s relationships with lovers, with her musicians, with her audience, and most significantly, with her daughter.

‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ is a richly personal biography and a fitting companion to an enthralling film. Simone was a tormented genius – a mass of contradictions – who, underneath all of the drama and problems remained Eunice Waymon: the little girl from South Carolina whose biggest regret was that she never became the world’s first black classical pianist.

* ‘What Happened, Miss Simone’ by Alan Light is published by Cannongate Books
ISBN: 9781782118732