Family Values: Emma Cline’s The Girls

Hardcover. Chatto & Windus

A debut novel by Emma Cline that is both compelling and repelling at the same time. The Girls is inspired by, but not about, the Manson girls, the women that were a part of Charles Manson’s family and who would brutally kill a number of people, including the actress Sharon Tate, on Manson’s orders. Set now and during the summer of 1969 when the Manson murders took place, Cline has created a dream-like parallel world in which the central character, the fourteen year-old Evelyn, or Evie as the ‘girls’ call her, becomes fascinated by Suzanne, a feral but beautiful girl who she sees one day walking in her local park with two other girls. Cline describes their arrival:
There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her, a dirty smock dress barely covering her ass. She was flanked by a skinny redhead and an older girl, dressed with the same shabby afterthought. As if dredged from a lake. All their cheap rings like a second set of  knuckles. They were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park. Mothers glancing around for their children, moved by some feeling they couldn’t name. Women reaching for their boyfriends’ hands. The sun spiked through the trees, like always – the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets – but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.
Cline writes beautifully and cleverly, managing in a few choice words to convey the alienation of adolescence and the threat of the outsider and wraps all of this into an etherial and languid sense of menace that builds up around Evie as she becomes part of the ‘family’. In many ways Cline’s decision to create her own take on the Manson cult -hers centres on a man named Russell – and to focus on the girls, and in particular Evie’s infatuation with Suzanne, brings a powerful and refreshingly raw feeling to the whole Manson mythology. Equally, by eschewing the actual Manson story and creating her own, borrowing elements of real events and mixing these with her ‘girls’,  Cline has been able to bring a real sense of California’s dreamy callousness to the shocking murders that follow, and her succinct and brutal descriptions of killing are as disturbing as any I have read.
Yet, despite the murders, or perhaps because of them, The Girls is essentially about teenage girls, their clothes, their smell, their struggles to please an older, charismatic man, their desperate faith in his vision of the world, their fragility and vulnerableness to sexual exploitation and to the mores and ideas of the time. Unnervingly so given that Cline, a Californian girl herself, is only 27 – and yet The Girls is perfectly of the sixties and reminds us that beneath all the talk of peace and love real horror was waiting.
I only got out of bed after I heard the girl. Her voice was high and innocuous. Though it shouldn’t have been comforting – Suzanne and the others had been girls, and that hadn’t helped anybody.