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