It is probably the cheapest aspect of 25-year-old Emma Cline’s debut The Girls that earned her the rumoured seven-figure advance and high-profile investment in the film rights: the part she owes to the Manson Family murders at Roman Polanski’s home, which became particularly notorious because two of the three murderers were girls. Cline’s novel opens with a middle-aged Evie Boyd looking back on 1969, the year she was fourteen and went to live on an abandoned ranch with ‘the girls’ of the title, followers of a Manson-like figure called Russell. There is dark allusion to a violent event: ‘It begins with the Ford idling up the narrow drive … The girls in the backseat holding hands.’ We don’t know the extent of Evie’s ‘involvement’, only that she ‘wasn’t mentioned in most of the books … gross with specifics, down to the undigested spaghetti they found in the little boy’s stomach.’ There are fat bribes for the reluctant reader – upon meeting a future victim, Evie reflects, ‘He’d be the first. The one who tried to fight back, to run’ – and some rather heavy retrospect: ‘There was so much, that first night, that should have been a warning.’ Finally the violence is described in ample detail for the punter of macabre tastes.
The ghoulish, however, only frames and punctuates this novel. Its true worth and suspense are to be found in the growth of Evie’s intimacy with Suzanne, the most violent of all ‘the girls’. The real fascination here is with sex, but nothing so prurient as the contemplation of savage killings;