A scorching California wind seems to blow across the pages of Emma Cline’s first novel, The Girls, perfuming the air with pot and patchouli. “It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless formless summer,” Evie Boyd recalls. “Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration.” Not fourteen year-old Evie, though, who lives with her newly divorced mother in the sleepy hills outside San Francisco, waiting for life to begin. “Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love,” Evie studies older, prettier girls, the ones who sit ” . . . on the high school steps, waiting for the lazy agitation of their boyfriends’ idling cars . . . ” With poetic accuracy, Cline distills into such images all the longing and tedium of adolescence.
The novel opens, however, with an incursion from a wilder world. “I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed,” Evie says of three hippie girls crossing her neighborhood park: ” . . . a ripple of awareness followed them . . . Mothers glancing around for their children, moved by some feeling they couldn’t name.” The otherwise unremarkable day is “disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.” The shadow of menace, so lyrically evoked in this prologue, deepens on the next page: “It begins with the Ford idling up the narrow drive, the sweet drone of honeysuckle thickening the August air.” A beautiful sentence — rhythmical, transfixing — leads us into horror that is glimpsed then gone. “They herd everyone into the living room . . . Their faces change like a shutter opening; the unlocking behind the eyes.”
It gives nothing away to reveal that The Girls is a reimagining (with important details altered) of the murders carried out in 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson, riskily infamous crimes for a first novel to encompass. So much has already been written, most notably Ed Sanders’s masterful 1971 chronicle, The Family. But Cline, avoiding the snares of nostalgia or titillation, conjures up a time and place that shimmers newly before us, dreamlike yet immediate. “There were so many things that returned me,” Evie, now middle-aged, observes: “The tang of soy, smoke in someone’s hair, the grassy hills turning blond in June.” Her present, by contrast, seems flimsy, provisional. Now housesitting for a friend, she becomes an unwilling host to the homeowner’s dope-running son, who excitedly tells his girlfriend who Evie once was. “She was in this cult . . . It was like a big fucking deal. Hippies killing these people out in Marin.” Evie protests, but memory’s safety catch has been sprung.
As the novel loops back and forth between 1969 and the present, the drift and rush of that distant summer materialize in languid scenes, heavy with foreboding. Evie’s mother, who once waited anxiously each evening for her errant husband, “. . . trying to decode new meaning from an empty driveway,” now embraces cleansings, therapies, and sympathetic men while Evie becomes enthralled with the feral girl first seen in the park. Suzanne, riding in the black school bus that pulls over, one hot afternoon, for Evie (“The stink of a joss stick in the air, prisms ticking against the window”) — to take her to the ranch, a gift for Russell. “Little tests first,” Evie recalls of her initiation. “A touch on my back, a pulse of my hand . . . And how quickly he’d ramped it up, easing his pants to his knees.” We have been here before in fiction. T. C. Boyle’s 2003 novel Drop City, for instance, brilliantly depicted the foulness and chicanery infecting the California sixties scene. And Cline does the same, but with compressed intensity rather than operatic flair. The Manson-like character of Russell, for example, is vile rather than satanic; he’s a small-time operator who peddles shopworn enlightenment to lost girls and bullies a dissolute rock star (clearly based on Brian Wilson) into promising him a record deal. The promise that leads to slaughter.
“Mitch Lewis was fatter than I expected someone famous to be,” Evie thinks when Russell presents her. “Swollen, like there was butter under his skin.” Weeks later, naked with Suzanne in Mitch’s bed, she catches his stoned gaze, ” . . . his mouth as slack as the open trunk of a car.” It is this fevered scene, two-thirds of the way into the novel, that ruptures its surface, allowing violence to seep through. Soon the girls are on that nighttime road to Mitch’s house in the rumbling Ford, armed and acid-high. ” . . . within seconds it must have been obvious that something was wrong,” Evie says of one victim, surprised by Suzanne: “That the girl who smiled back (because Suzanne did, famously, smile back) had eyes like a brick wall.” What follows is hard to read. But Cline is too subtle a writer to end with a bloody crescendo. “The air was cool with the first news of autumn,” Evie recalls of that night, “and the constellation of brake lights was going along 101, the big trucks rearing as they picked up speed.” There will be one more visit from Suzanne, as chilling as anything that has gone before. Then the black school bus disappears into the desert.