The Burning Girl by Claire Messud review – innocence and loss

Young adolescence is vividly captured in this sober novel about relationships and the price of maturity

David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and Huckleberry Finn all employed a voice that was then new to fiction: that of a powerless child indicting power misused. It is a compelling tactic, used by contemporary novelists so often that I’ve wondered whether adults are allowed to tell stories any more. It’s a risky tactic, too; for if we see innocence and wisdom only in children, and all adults as wicked and uncaring, the indictment is not of reparable wrongs and misdeeds but of maturity itself.

In The Burning Girl, American novelist Claire Messud, whose previous books include The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs, avoids such sentimental cynicism. Her story of a childhood friendship, recounted in the voice of a girl of 16 or 17, does not demonise adulthood or dismiss maturity as valueless; but neither does it say that growing up is going to help much. These children are not merciless judges of their parents, or vice versa. There is a good deal of sympathetic understanding on both sides. The problem, perhaps, is not so much power misused by adults against the helpless as a general powerlessness.

Aged 11, the two bright, sensitive protagonists, Julia and Cassandra, can still escape from stifling social pressures and the demand for conformity into imaginative invention, but it is already a rather desperate escape. They enact their fantasy-dramas in an abandoned mental hospital for women, a ruin haunted by misery. By 12 they have lost even that refuge. Their emotional focus narrows to preoccupations fraught with anxiety: sex, the changing body, social class. Imagination is limited to speculation on immediate, daily, local reality. Learning is test-taking. Admired achievement is possible only in sports. Celebrities are the sole role models. Competition, envy and spite dominate group relationships, and under this pressure friendships grow uncertain. Cassie and Julia drift apart, without a quarrel, and though there is a deep permanent bond between them, it will not be renewed.

Messud captures young adolescence vividly and unjudgmentally, as it was in 2013 for middle-class white kids of the electronic age in America. The shining goals are wealth and success, but the jobs offered to the young are nanny, barista, waitress, janitor. Work is seldom presented to them as something to be done for its own sake; purpose doesn’t mean much. These kids are likely to see their lives not as a continuity of being with an imaginable past and an imaginable future, but as a rapid succession of unrelated events without history and without promise. And therefore without hope.

There is a lot of grief in this novel. I resist novelists who want to take me on a guilt trip and at first I thought that’s what Messud was doing, but I was wrong. Her novel is, rather, a kind of ceremony of mourning. Julia, the narrator, writes: “I was scared, some type of low-level scared, all the time – in the back of my mind, but always there.” Julia’s parents are affectionate and reliable, but her feminist mother can’t give her much reassurance: “It’s a sick society,” she says. And: “Cassie was hardening,” Julia says, “small, tight, unsparing, even her laugh turned brittle, and her little girl’s body seemed at once unfinished and withering on the vine.”

Cassie gets in with a bad crowd at school, and her mother, a widow who made her daughter her friend, takes up with a dreadful man with his eye more on the girl than the mother. Life at home deteriorates into persecution, till she is driven to seek safety if not salvation from the person she considers her “guardian angel”, her father. He was killed years earlier in a highway accident, or so her mother says. But the mighty search engine of Google provides Cassie’s angel, a man of the right age and almost the right name, living only a couple of New England states away. So Cassie climbs on the bus and becomes a Missing Person. Her journey, its outcome and its aftermath are narrated with sober honesty.

Painful as it may be, this is a hard book to stop reading. Messud is a story teller: the ability to compel and hold the reader’s interest may not be the crown and summit of the art of novel-writing, but it’s the beginning and the end of it. And despite some rather self-conscious passages and improbabilities of voice, the story rewards the reader right through to the end.

When I was about 15, an excellent teacher put in my hands Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier’s lyrical novel of doomed adolescence. At that age of course I swallowed all the romanticism of Meaulnes’ mysterious domain and wanted only more. More thn 70 years later, I hopefully followed these two girls seeking their own mysterious domain in an abandoned mental hospital, even if I knew only too well that all the romance was imagined, and that any attempt to return to it would end in tragedy.

• Ursula Le Guin’s selected stories, The Unreal and the Real, are published by Gollancz.

The Burning Girl is published by Fleet. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Ursula K Le Guin

The GuardianTramp

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