Either I’ve become a massive history buff or succumbed to drippy nostalgia in my old age, but just about everything I’ve loved in 2016 has little to do with the 21st century. Seems I’m constantly reliving the ’90s (O.J.: Made in America), trippin’ on the ’80s (Everybody Wants Some!!, Stranger Things) or daydreaming yet again about the ’70s (The Get Down). And now comes Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls, which masterfully recasts the Manson murders of 1969 as the backdrop for a twistedly tender coming-of-age tale.
We’ve seen a swarm of Manson-related projects lately, ranging from historical fictions (NBC’s Aquarius, currently wrapping up its second season) to chick flicks (Lifetime’s Manson’s Lost Girls, aired back in February) and quirky indie comedies (Manson Family Vacation, presented by the Duplass Brothers). All are flawed and unremarkable, but at least they’re aiming for some new angle in Manson mythology, not mere fetishisation. (Remember back in the ’90s, when Axl Rose wore Manson T-shirts onstage and covered Manson songs, and Trent Reznor set up a studio in Sharon Tate’s old house? That was gross.)
Not quite historical fiction, The Girls riffs on familiar details: It’s set in San Francisco, not LA. Its cult leader is named Russell, not Charlie. His rock-star friend is Mitch, not Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys. The horrific murders claim a mother and her young son, not a pregnant woman, and those are eventually recounted in a graphic, true-crime best seller. The chalk-mark outlines of real-life events are there, but Cline has colored them in with a story that’s more Diary of a Teenage Girl than Helter Skelter.
At 14 years old, Evie Boyd lives in a world of privilege, the granddaughter of a famous TV star and a child of divorce whose parents are off trying to please new partners. One afternoon in the park, she’s mesmerized by a dumpster-diving free spirit named Suzanne: “This girl wasn’t beautiful, I realized … it was something else. Like pictures I’d seen of the actor John Huston’s daughter. Her face could have been an error, but some other process was at work. It was better than beauty.” Eventually Suzanne brings Evie to “the ranch,” a filthy commune lorded over by Russell, whose generous attention and bevy of peace-and-love platitudes trick Evie into stealing from the neighbors and running away from home.
Evie’s quick to own her forced awakenings as a mark of independence, a release from the straight world, but Cline’s superb writing reveals the fear underneath. The food is rancid at the ranch, the clothes stink of mouse crap and 11-year-olds roam the fields, stunned on LSD. The sex, never consensual, is wet and noisy and embarrassing. After being coerced into a three-way, Evie admits, “When I woke up in the morning and saw the soiled twist of my underwear on Mitch’s floor, such helpless embarrassment bubbled up in me that I almost cried,”
Sentences like that undercut the shock of the novel’s inevitably violent climax. When it comes to dread and sadness, even the killing of adults can’t overcome the loss of a child’s innocence.