James Ley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Mil­lions of words have been writ­ten about the mur­ders com­mit­ted by Charles Man­son’s “Fam­ily” of acid-crazed hip­pies in Los An­ge­les in the sum­mer of 1969, but the line that per­haps comes clos­est to ex­plain­ing why these par­tic­u­lar atroc­i­ties should hold such a fas­ci­na­tion be­longs to Joan Did­ion. In her es­say The White Album, she writes of the es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions of that time: its air of me­nace, para­noia and fear.

When the news broke that ac­tress Sharon Tate and sev­eral of her houseguests had been bru­tally slain, Did­ion re­calls that mis­in­for­ma­tion and wild ru­mours im­me­di­ately be­gan to cir­cu­late — and yet, she ob­serves, “I re­mem­ber that no one was sur­prised.”

The chill run­ning through that line is the recog­ni­tion that, from the out­set, the im­pli­ca­tions of the Man­son mur­ders seemed hard to con­tain. The story be­hind them cer­tainly proved to be as mul­ti­fac­eted as it was bizarre. In the first in­stance, there was the sen­sa­tional fact that much of the killing, though or­ches­trated by Man­son, was car­ried out by a co­hort of young women who were not only slav­ishly devoted to him but had been in­doc­tri­nated into a loopy be­lief sys­tem based on his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of song lyrics by the Bea­tles. Then there was the creepy way in which Man­son, a highly adept crim­i­nal so­ciopath, had in­sin­u­ated him­self into the Los An­ge­les mu­sic scene. He had hung out with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and schmoozed in­flu­en­tial record pro­ducer Terry Melcher.

The chain of events that led to the mur­ders in­volved some dodgy drug deals and the fail­ure of Man­son — a man con­spic­u­ously lack­ing any mu­si­cal abil­ity — to se­cure the record­ing con­tract he thought would make him fa­mous.

It is easy to see why the Man­son mur­ders might be a tempt­ing sub­ject for an am­bi­tious young writer. It is also not hard to see how the case’s no­to­ri­ety and com­plex­ity, its many lurid and in­cred­i­ble de­tails and its un­set­tling cul­tural re­ver­ber­a­tions might make it tricky to drama­tise con­vinc­ingly. And so it proves. Emma Cline’s The Girls is an un­usu­ally ac­com­plished de­but novel in many re­spects, but in pre­sent­ing a fic­tion­alised ver­sion of such hor­rific real events it dis­torts them in some cu­ri­ous ways.

The most strik­ing as­pect of The Girls is that it trans­forms the Man­son mur­ders into a story largely about the tra­vails of ado­les­cent fe­male sex­u­al­i­sa­tion. It de­scribes the ini­ti­a­tion of its young pro­tag­o­nist into the un­com­fort­able so­cial dy­namic that is gen­er­ated by her bur­geon­ing sense of long­ing and her ex­pe­ri­ence of be­com­ing an ob­ject of de­sire. More broadly, it pro­poses that young women are made in­se­cure and sub­mis­sive as a re­sult of their des­per­ate need to feel loved and ac­cepted.

The Girls is nar­rated by Evie, who is 14 years old in 1969. She is from an af­flu­ent fam­ily, but her par­ents have re­cently sep­a­rated. Un­su­per­vised and lonely, she drifts into the or­bit of a group of feral-look­ing girls she first sees waft­ing through the park one sum­mer’s day, at­tracted by their ir­rev­er­ent and care­free man­ner. She be­comes a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to the bro­ken-down The Girls By Emma Cline Chatto & Win­dus, 368pp, $32.99 ranch where they live un­der the con­trol­ling in­flu­ence of Rus­sell, the novel’s sin­is­ter Man­son fig­ure. With­out sev­er­ing ties to her bour­geois ex­is­tence, Evie is drawn into their world of sex and drugs, which prom­ises a kind of lib­er­a­tion, but in fact repli­cates the pa­tri­ar­chal or­der of straight so­ci­ety.

The novel moves be­tween Evie’s mis­ad­ven­tures as a teenager and sec­tions in which we en­counter her as an older woman who is led to re­flect on her ex­pe­ri­ences when she meets a bump­tious young man named Ju­lian and his meek girl­friend Sasha. The di­vided nar­ra­tive un­der­scores Cline’s fre­quently in­ci­sive view of the kinds of power im­bal­ances that shape so­cial in­ter­ac­tions be­tween men and women, though mis­matched de­sires and ex­pec­ta­tions are not de­picted as a strictly het­ero­sex­ual prob­lem. The per­son whose ap­proval the young Evie comes most des­per­ately to want is Suzanne, the most at­trac­tive and charis­matic of the girls.

There is never any ques­tion where the novel is head­ing, though it presents a stripped-back ver­sion of his­tor­i­cal events. In do­ing so, it elides many of the case’s weird­est de­tails. The Girls does not trou­ble it­self, for ex­am­ple, with the wigged-out non­sense that Man­son preached to his drug-ad­dled fol­low­ers. In­stead, Rus­sell spouts plat­i­tudes about “build­ing a new kind of

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