Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, is a coming of age story set in extraordinary circumstances. Based on the true events of the Charles Manson family, The Girls follows Evie Boyd, a fourteen-year-old girl on the cusp of adolescence, as she is drawn into the inner circle of a soon-to-be-infamous cult.
The research that has gone into The Girls is incredible — few details stray from the actual Manson case, aside from a relocation to California — but it’s not historical fiction. Instead, Cline uses the time and setting to craft an enduring tale of girlhood. While the majority of the book is set in 1969, and possesses the dreamy echoes of a bygone era, Cline paints the details of the time lightly. She doesn’t get carried away with specifics, preferring to use the mood and tone to create a world that is distant, yet timeless.
The book is set in the present tense, narrated by a middle-aged Evie as she reflects on her time inside the cult. Cline is an exceptional stylist and uses this vantage point well. On numerous occasions her carefully crafted sentences unveil a depth of clarity and insight. It’s stunning to read, and more than once left me feeling as though Cline had described my own feelings with words I’ve been unable to find.
The novel begins when Evie is young, innocent and only just beginning to press against the boundaries of childhood and independence. She witnesses a group of girls with long, unkempt hair and is captivated by their freedom and careless sensuality. One girl captures Evie’s interest more than the others: Black-haired Suzanne with her unaffected attitude and dirty smock dress.