The Girls, Vintage’s lead début for 2016, has already sold in 35 territories. In the US, Random House signed the author for a three-book deal (two novels and a collection of short stories) in a rumoured seven-figure deal after a 12-publisher auction. Over here Vintage imprint Chatto beat an undisclosed number of publishers in a “hotly contested” auction. Film rights were snapped up by the legendary producer Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men”) in a pre-empt even before the US publisher auction got under way. To say there is pre-publication buzz around The Girls is rather an understatement.
The young writer at the centre of all the fuss is 26-year-old Emma Cline. Speaking over the phone from her agent’s office in New York, she explains that she grew up in northern California very aware of all the stories surrounding Charles Manson and his cult —what she calls “that whole vibe of Manson”. In the late 1960s Manson’s followers carried out several brutal murders: the most notorious being actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant girlfriend of Roman Polanski. She remembers reading Helter Skelter by Victor Bugliosi (the state prosecutor at the time of the killings), first published in 1974 and now considered a true crime classic. “It was”, she recalls “very exciting to read as a young child, because it was very sordid and you knew that you were not supposed to be looking at it.”
The events surrounding Charles Manson and his followers partly inspired The Girls, but Cline’s novel is not a straight retelling of that story. As she explains: “There’s a way that telling a familiar story slant can illuminate the reality more than any faithful account. With a story like the Manson family—its details are so familiar and have been re-tread for so long that they have been wrung of any urgency—I saw no available air in that story for a novel. The only way to write about a situation like that was to completely reframe it, and in some ways to leave it behind.”
The Girls is set in California in the summer of 1969. Evie Boyd is 14 years old, young for her age and bored, bored, bored. Her newly divorced mother Jean is preoccupied with her own needs— therapies, massage and women’s encounter groups—leaving Evie to her own devices. As the summer stretches endlessly ahead with the grim prospect of being sent away to boarding school in the autumn, Evie is ripe for distraction. And one day, in the local park, the distraction arrives in the form of a small gang of older girls.
Everything about the girls—the way they are dressed, their unkempt hair and bare feet, their laughter and carelessness—makes Evie long to know them better. One girl in particular stands out to Evie, dark-haired Suzanne. Later in the novel a chance encounter on a dirt road—after Evie’s bike chain breaks—results in her being given a lift to the girls’ house, a commune in a shabby, dilapidated old ranch. Evie is invited to the solstice celebration planned for that evening—and it is here that she meets Russell, the charismatic leader of the commune, around whom the girls revolve.
Cline perfectly captures the feelings and actions of a young girl on the cusp of adulthood. Evie is starting to realise she possesses some power of her own through her body, but is unsure what to do with it. Cline says: “I wanted sexuality and sexual power to take many different forms [in the novel] and be both empowering sometimes and then also wielded against the women. And for power to be this thing that is constantly shifting, because it is a strange moment in your life I think, [aged] 14 or 15, when you are starting to come into this new power but you don’t have any real sense of what it means or how the world will respond.”
The central relationship of the novel is not between Russell and Evie, but Evie and the older girl Suzanne. Cline is extraordinarily good on this friendship; Evie does not have a crush on Suzanne, but she is utterly enthralled by her. Cline describes it as a “sort of proto-romance; I think the boys of that age have no ability to really read all the symbols and myth-making that girls are already so steeped in. But other girls can read that stuff, I think they’ve practised on each other . . . I think in romantic relationships there are lots of markers and people know what [that relationship is] going to look like. But friendship is interesting because there are no rules. It can contain all kinds of things.”
Evie’s friendship with Suzanne leads her to spend increasing amounts of time at the commune, aided by her mother’s frequent absences from the family home. Cline has long been interested in the old communes which dot the landscape in northern California. It’s a part of the world that draws seekers, she says, and those who want to reinvent themselves. “It’s such a new place, even compared to the East Coast, much less compared to England. It’s a young area and for that reason it just feels untethered to history and you can sort of be anyone and do anything, which is both, like, wonderful and freeing, but also frightening.”
She also notes that communes can nurture “all the best impulses of human beings—‘we’ll have this ideal society, free from hatred, free from banal problems’—but at the same time, for some reason, also call up all this darkness and all the worst human impulses.”
Over the course of The Girls the dark side of the commune is revealed. No spoilers here but the dénouement is not sensationalistic or gratuitous. I rather think The Girls will come to be referred to as “the Manson novel” but it is so much more than that; a beautifully written, consuming story which perfectly captures the mindset of an adolescent girl on the brink of something which she doesn’t fully understand until it is too late.
“I wanted to write a book about that moment in adolescence when identity starts to intersect with sex, and how vulnerable that makes girls to the vision of themselves offered by others—a dangerous combination. Most every woman I know has some story from their adolescence of a near-miss, a moment when things could have gone terribly wrong. There’s a way that danger becomes appealing at that age, something to be sought out, almost as a way to test the boundaries of this new power.”
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 1st April 2016.