The Girls by Emma Cline review – allure of the cult

A teenage girl joins a dangerous commune in this evocative debut novel inspired by the Charles Manson affair

It’s not hard to see why novelists are attracted to writing about cults and communes, fictional or fictionalised: their bounded and reclusive worlds nonetheless illuminate the society surrounding them; they are catnip for the charismatics who found them and the seekers who flock to them, providing a ready-made cast of inadequates entrapped in a febrile power dynamic; and their inherent dysfunction customarily provides an satisfyingly entropic, if not outright apocalyptic, narrative. The less harmful among them can tend to the comic, while the more vicious can be downright terrifying. There is virtually always a great deal of sex.

Emma Cline, whose debut novel comes with much buzz (including a hefty advance, publication deals in numerous countries and a pre-emptive swoop for the film rights by Scott Rudin), now joins the ranks of writers from John Updike and Alison Lurie to Chuck Palahniuk and Emily St John Mandel. But her subject is modelled on one of the most infamous and disturbing criminals of the late 20th century, Charles Manson, whose “Family” brutally murdered actor Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and friends of her and her husband, Roman Polanski, in August 1969. On that night, Manson had directed a group of young women to carry out the slaughter and had himself stayed at the commune’s ranch-squat; the following night, he accompanied them to commit another set of murders.

To say that the deranged figure of Manson has passed into our collective conscious is an understatement; just last year, the US TV drama Aquarius brought a version of him to our screens. Back in 1971, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer engaged in one of the most vicious chatshow rows of all time, as Mailer retaliated to Vidal’s description of him in the New York Review of Books as part of “M3”, a line Vidal drew from Henry Miller to Mailer to Manson, a group of men “conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed”.

In a sense, Cline’s subtly provoking novel is an exploration of M3, and of its effects on women’s behaviour, especially in youth. Her Manson – a similarly delusional egomaniac drifter called Russell Hadrick – hovers at the edges of the novel, experienced mainly by the occult waves of approval or anger he confers on his acolytes. In the foreground are “the Girls”, and in particular Suzanne, their deeply alluring de facto leader, who captivates the novel’s narrator, 14-year-old Evie. Hanging around in the Californian suburbs, waiting to go to the boarding school her divorcing parents have selected to solve her vague problems, Evie is ripe for mutinous diversion; Hadrick’s girls are more enticing than her best friend, Connie, with whom she listlessly enacts adult beauty rituals while ineptly flirting with Connie’s older brother.

At the ranch, she can accelerate her emergence from the chrysalis of adolescence; she can also take her revenge on her mother, busily embarked on various 60s self-help schemes and simultaneously searching for a new mate, and her father, blithely ensconced in an impersonally high-end flat with a much younger woman.

The strength of The Girls lies in Cline’s ability to evoke both the textures and atmosphere of those painful in-between times; the desperate rush to fill an emotional vacuum. “Maybe this was a better way,” thinks Evie, early on, “even though it seemed alien. To be part of this amorphous group, believing love could come from any direction.” One of the Manson Family’s favourite transgressions, reprised here, was to enter people’s empty homes, whatever burglary they carried out secondary to the psychic shock delivered by the minute changes they made to the domestic space. Cline has a talent for capturing that uncanniness, the fault lines in our sense of our stability.

The Girls is far from a perfect novel: its mirroring of the trajectory of the Family’s activities is somewhat constricting, and unnecessary; a secondary line, in which we meet Evie in middle age, is affecting, but not quite substantial enough. But she is a powerful interpreter of ambiguous emotional vectors, and the catastrophic directions in which they can lead.

The Girls is published by Chatto & Windus (£12.99). Click here to buy it for £10.39


Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

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