Publisher: Chatto Windus
This was not the book I expected it to be, but maybe that’s a good thing. I’m not a cult enthusiast like some potential readers may be. My interest is purely based on what Karen and Georgia of My Favorite Murder fame have fed to me. So I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I think it might have been a bit more wacky and psychedelic than the actual gritty and just downright depressing narrative I ended up with. Even though it wasn’t what I expected, it was still pretty good in an oh-no-what’s-happening kind of a way.
Based on my limited knowledge of cults and their history I think the one depicted by Emma Cline was heavily inspired by the Charles Manson cult, and the murders it’s members committed. Russell, the enigmatic and charismatic leader, is an aspiring singer songwriter. He has amassed a cult (literally) following of young fans, mostly girls, who truly believe Russell is destined for great things and will change the world with his music. Cline expertly documents how quickly adoration and obsession can spiral into complete obedience and truly destructive behaviors.
Though this book may have been sold to me as a gory, dramatic cult story, I thought it could equally be re-branded as a coming of age, sexual awakening story. Our protagonist, Evie, is a preteen when the cult comes to town and she becomes obsessed with one of Russell's girls, the mysterious and beautiful Suzanne. As the story unfolds, Evie tries to untangle her feelings for Suzanne. Are they those of complete admiration and jealousy? Or are they deeper feelings of attraction, or even love? Evie has a plethora of first sexual experiences, ranging from participatory and enjoyable to non-consensual and abusive. Through her eyes we see her try to come to terms with the trauma and pleasure that comes with them, as she figures out herself and what she wants. We can contrast Evie’s relationship with Suzanne with her relationship with Connie, a childhood friend. Evie is a pretty awful friend to Connie, abandoning her as soon as something more exciting, more grown up comes along. In comparison, her relationship with Suzanne is obsessive and all-consuming. She would probably do anything for Suzanne.
Evie’s experiences are not unique, the novel contains quite a bit of unsettling sexual abuse. But interestingly, in light of the #metoo movement, it’s nothing that would hold up in a court of law as rape. None of the girls are held against their will, they don’t scream, struggle or fight back. None of Evie’s assaults have the hallmarks of what a court would perceive of lack of consent. But to call them consensual would be a gross misrepresentation, and wouldn’t take into account the power balance and the pressure the girls were under to sexual gratify the men. In a way it reminded me of the sex in Louise O’Neill’s Almost Love, in which she describes women being complicit in their own degradation. The girls in Russell’s cult take part in sex and allow themselves to me abused because they feel that that’s the only way they will be allowed to stay where they feel they belong. They put up with the abuse and mistreated because they feel the will be cast out if they don’t. They feel they have no alternative. This is all without even mentioning that a lot of the girls abused by Russell are underage, and that’s statutory rape no doubt about it.
As in her description of sexual abuse, Cline doesn’t shy away from exploring the power men have over women. She explores it to various different degrees through different relationships. Russell has total control over Suzanne. She would do anything for his approval and love, and ultimately murders for him.(This isn’t a spoiler it’s mentioned in pretty much the first chapter so I’m not sorry.) Evie’s parents and Evie’s father and his girlfriend also have a really unhealthy power imbalance in their relationships. Evie’s mother puts up with her husband cheating on her, and when he eventually leaves her for his girlfriend she completely loses herself. Taram and Evie’s father have a slightly more equal relationship, putting the age difference and the fact he’s her boss aside, in that Taram seems less likely to put up with Evie’s fathers shit.
All thematic features aside, my favourite aspect of this book was the aesthetic that Cline creates in the North California setting. I feel like the cover is perfectly done to represent this vibe. The blue, blue sky, the orange and yellow lens flare and the almost dusty, grainy quality of the photograph all screams a stifling hot California summer. Cline really captures the oppressive, lazy quality of the heat and it permeates the mood of the narrative. This story couldn’t have played out anywhere else but an abandoned ranch in the hills of north California. This setting is in striking contrast to the violent and disturbing aspects of the narrative. It’s jarring to imaging such vile acts taking place in the lazy heat. Some of the descriptions are not for the faint of heart and I found myself speedreading some sections willing them to be over. If you're not one for grisly depictions of violence, there are parts of this book you will find distressing.
All in all I thought The Girls was an interesting, realistic and gritty depiction of obsession, abuse and power and is worth a read if you have a strong stomach.
Four Stars ****