Emma Cline: The Girls (2016)

The Girls

I knew a lot about The Girls and Emma Cline’s publishing deal before the book was even out. It has been sold at an auction for 2,000,000 $ – together with the next, not yet written – novel and a collection of short stories. That must put a lot of pressure on the author. Another sign of a major hype is that the German translation came out at the same time as the US original. Oddly, since it’s been published, I’ve not heard so much about it or read many reviews on blogs. The title might not be doing it any favours as it makes it sound like another “girl thriller”. While it’s about a crime, The Girls is a literary novel, not a crime novel per se.

I’m in two minds about this novel. The first forty pages were terrific. Emma Cline showed major talent. Her prose was stylish and original and the approach to her topic daring, but then came the long, frankly rather boring middle section that made me almost abandon the book. I’m glad I didn’t because the end was good.

The Girls is told as a split narrative. Most parts are set during the summer of ’69 and told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd; the other parts are told by the now middle-aged Evie, who’s looking back. In 1969 Evie’s a lonely girl who lives with a mother who’s just rediscovered dating and doesn’t have time nor patience. She’s going to send Evie to a boarding school. That would be misery enough but on top of that, Evie’s just fallen out with her best friend and is discovering her sexuality, which she can’t handle at all. Then, one afternoon, she sees the girls—a group of beautiful, dirty teenage girls who appear self-assured, arrogant, and wild. Evie’s fascinated, especially by Suzanne. Evie finds out later that the people in her town are wary of them. There are rumours of drug abuse, delinquency and orgies.

Evie sees them again and is invited to their farm and introduced to Russell, their leader. She’s quickly sucked into the life on the farm and becomes one of them. Being part of that group means following Russell’s every move, waiting to be summoned by him, stealing for him, doing drugs, having sex with much older men. Russell pretends to be enlightened but he’s narcissistic and deranged. What he really wants is to become a famous pop star.

Evie’s too miserable in her life to notice that something’s going very wrong on the farm. Not only are they taking too many drugs, but there’s hardly any food. The houses they live in are decaying. The whole place is dirty and insalubrious.

Early in the novel, we learn that a horrific murder was committed and we know that, for some reason, Evie wasn’t part of the group who committed it. What we only find out at the end is why she wasn’t there and what happened to her afterwards.

It’s not often that a book comes full circle at the end like this one. For a long time, I didn’t like the dual narrative, found it artificial, but it made sense in the end.

Emma Cline does a great job at showing us the world through the eyes of a lonely teenage girl. A girl that’s very much a product of her time. She manages to make us see how girls like Suzanne and Evie were easy prey for a man like Russell (or Manson). But she also shows us that Russell wasn’t the only reason for a girl to stay on the farm. In Evie’s case, it’s not Russell who has a hold on her, but the charismatic Suzanne.

At first I was a bit afraid that given the nature of the crime, the book would be too sensationalist. It is sensationalist, but not because of the crime but because of the way Cline writes about sex. The book is explicit and occasionally shocking. I guess that’s one of the reasons why it’s not been marketed as a YA novel.

I didn’t find this novel entirely convincig and certainly don’t understand the huge advance payment she received. While there are great parts in the book, there are many parts that are dragging and the story was far from original. It certainly wasn’t a must read.

If you’d like to get to know her writing – here’s her only other publication, her short story Marion. It was published by the Paris Review and received the Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2014.

Lisa Jewell: The Girls in the Garden aka The Girls (2015)

The Girls in the GardenThe Girls Lisa Jewell

It doesn’t happen often that I stay up late because I have to finish a book but in this case it did. I guess that shows how captivated I was by Lisa Jewell’s novel The Girls or The Girls in the Garden (the US title). I came across this book on Danielle’s blog (here is the link) and had to get it right away. I just knew I would love everything about it.

The Girls is set in London, during one summer, in a communal garden and the flats and houses surrounding it. It’s told by several different narrators. It begins in the house Claire shares with her two daughters. Claire and her younger daughter Pip have just returned from a party, Claire is drunk and throwing up. Pip is worried and goes to look for her older sister Grace who is still in the garden with a group of kids from the neighbourhood. When Pip finds her, Grace is half-naked and unconscious. From here the story rewinds and starts at the beginning when Claire and her daughters move into one of the houses bordering the huge garden. Claire and her two daughters, twelve-year-old Pip and thirteen year old Grace, have gone through something shocking. The girl’s father burned down their beautiful house during an episode of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s been in a psychiatric hospital since then and Claire has never visited, nor does she want her girls to see him. When they arrive in their new house, they are quickly drawn into the lives of their neighbours. Claire and the girls are invited for dinner and the girls become part of a group of local kids.

Among the neighbours are Adele and Leo and their three homeschooled daughters. Gordon, Leo’s obnoxious father, who stays with them for health reasons. The elderly Rhea, who lives with a giant rabbit and a cat. Cece and her daughter Tyler. And beautiful Dylan with his mother and older brother with special needs.

The garden is a secluded place, secured by gates and only accessible with keys and through the back gardens of the surrounding houses. All the people who have access to the garden see it as a safe haven. A place where nothing can happen. That Grace is found unconscious, bleeding, and half-naked in a place like this is particularly shocking. Not only because nobody would have expected something like this to happen, but also because it’s clear that it must have been someone with access to the garden. Possibly someone who was at the summer night’s party.

Every single one of the men in this book is suspicious. Everybody else seems to hide something or know something they won’t tell. And there was the mysterious death of another girl, many years ago.

Obviously I found this book very suspenseful or I wouldn’t have stayed up late to finish it. But there was more. While the central question is what happened to Grace, the central themes are trust and safety, marriage and family life, growing up and friendships, themes we can all relate to. Plot and subplots, look at these themes from different angles and the result is arresting. I’m also fond of these communal gardens that I only know from the UK. They have something enchanted.

If you’re looking for a page-turner with great characters, a wonderful setting, and relatable themes, you shouldn’t miss this.

I’ve seen that Lisa Jewell has written many books. Has anyone read them? Are they as gripping as this?