THE BURN­ING GIRL

Claire Mes­sud Fleet; $27.99

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX - STEPHANIE BISHOP

At a de­ci­sive mo­ment in Claire Mes­sud’s el­e­gant and com­pelling new novel, The Burn­ing Girl, the young nar­ra­tor, Ju­lia, re­marks that “grow­ing up and be­ing a girl was about learn­ing to be afraid”. This fear stems from the fe­male body – what it ex­pe­ri­ences or is sub­jected to – and has the ca­pac­ity to con­tam­i­nate ev­ery as­pect of life, even at its most mun­dane: walk­ing in the street, go­ing to a party, trav­el­ling in a car. At the heart of grow­ing up as a girl, Ju­lia ar­gues, is a loss of free­dom: “Be­ware dark­ness, iso­la­tion, the out­doors, un­locked win­dows, men you don’t know.” The reach of this anx­i­ety turns life into “a kind of pornog­ra­phy” – a teenage girl read­ily imag­ines her­self to be the tragic star of the show as worst-case sce­nar­ios be­fall her.

These omi­nous pos­si­bil­i­ties haunt the pages of Mes­sud’s novel as we fol­low the lives of Ju­lia and her child­hood friend Cassie. The story is nar­rated ret­ro­spec­tively: Ju­lia, aged 16 or 17, re­calls the girls’ pre-teen ex­pe­ri­ences, and we know from the out­set that in nav­i­gat­ing this tu­mul­tuous pe­riod, Cassie’s life has taken a wrong turn. We are told that Cassie is “gone”, but the truth of the mat­ter is slip­pery.

As Ju­lia slowly pieces things to­gether, she traces the vi­cis­si­tudes and dis­so­lu­tion of their close bond. She rec­ol­lects Cassie’s re­bel­lion: walk­ing the streets late at night, the ru­mours con­cern­ing al­co­hol and boys. Cassie is de­scribed as hav­ing “gone over to the dark side”, ex­ist­ing like a planet “in shadow”. Ju­lia at­tributes Cassie’s change of for­tune to the mo­ment when her mother part­nered up with the sin­is­ter An­ders Shute, who had “all the power of a fa­ther, with­out the con­straints”.

Ju­lia is a good girl, the foil for Cassie’s de­viant ways. But she is far from moral­is­ing, and as she tells of the events lead­ing up to Cassie’s dis­ap­pear­ance, she re­mains aware of her own bias: “It’s a dif­fer­ent story de­pend­ing on where you start … Each of us shapes our sto­ries so they make sense of who we think we are.” In the har­bour­ing of di­ver­gent nar­ra­tives the truth evades cap­ture, and Ju­lia’s ver­sion is sub­se­quently given as a form of tes­ti­mony that both hon­ours their friend­ship and seeks to come to terms with the un­cer­tain­ties sur­round­ing Cassie’s re­cent fate.

Across her fic­tion, Mes­sud has proved her­self an ex­pert chron­i­cler of fe­male friend­ship. In The Burn­ing Girl, Mes­sud ex­tends this theme by bring­ing to light a pe­riod of in­tense ado­les­cent anx­i­ety in which young women be­come sep­a­rated from each other and, at the same time, from them­selves. With this novel, Mes­sud shifts to a dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter through a younger voice, al­though the ju­ve­nile tone of the nar­ra­tion tends to limit the scope and am­bi­tion of the book. Ju­lia’s ca­pac­ity for in­sight is cur­tailed by her naivety and all-per­vad­ing “good­ness”, and ul­ti­mately too much is left unan­swered.

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