‘The Girls,” Emma Cline’s outstanding debut novel, is far from the only book inspired by cult leader Charles Manson or the only good one; “Helter Skelter,” about the Manson murders, is considered a true-crime classic, and critics adored Jeff Guinn’s 2014 Manson biography as well. Unlike these and most of its other predecessors, however, Cline’s novel is an astonishing work of imagination — remarkably atmospheric, preternaturally intelligent, and brutally feminist.
Those who’ve avoided the Manson muck don’t need to know much to appreciate this novel’s feral beauty; a vague recollection that his gang — known as the Family — stabbed pregnant actress Sharon Tate inside the house she shared with her husband, “Rosemary’s Baby” director Roman Polanski, should suffice. As skillfully as Gerhard Richter, Cline painstakingly destroys the separation between art and faithful representation to create something new, wonderful, and disorienting.
Those familiar with Manson will thrill to the brilliance with which Cline has adapted historical events to suit her own aims. (And get very excited over cameos from other ’70s weirdos like a Dennis Wilson stand-in and the Process Church.) Most other Manson-inspired narratives rely on the mummified trope of the hippie dream turned nightmare, with a real or imagined soundtrack of that tired old song about poor old Alice. (Someone really should retire “White Rabbit” before it has a stroke on the factory floor.)
Rather than rely on desiccated, lazy signifiers of spooky, nefarious hippiedom, Cline turns instead to her titular girls. In account after account, the Manson girls — whether having sex on command, stabbing people to death on command, or carving X’s into their foreheads during the Family’s murder trial (on command) — are cast as passive (or just blissfully brainwashed) actors running towards or away from powerful men. “The Girls,” which follows one Evie Boyd of Petaluma, Calif., dares to give the Manson girls agency as well as a context more meaningful than yet another Doors organ solo bleating over a plume of patchouli smoke.
Like all teenagers, Evie is bored, horny, and a little bit out to lunch. While strolling through the park one day, she meets trouble in the form of three long-haired, unkempt girls who “seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile . . . They were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time.”
“I looked up because of laughter, and kept looking up because of the girls,” reads Cline’s first sentence, establishing the protagonist as willful and the author as possibly the first-ever person to consider that the women who followed Manson were just as drawn to and driven by one another as they were to that wild-eyed, death-happy beardo.
Fourteen-year-old Evie, neglected by a trustifarian mother and a gold-digging father, recently divorced, falls in with the displaced royals, hastened by her attraction to a sexy, 19-year-old brunette named Suzanne. Her infatuation leads her to a man named Russell who, like his source material, cuts quite the figure in a deer skin suit and lives, along with a gaggle of filthy young people and their lice-ridden children, on a moldering ranch, where he preaches at them and sings them songs when he’s not telling them what to do.
Cline’s prose captures how the Manson family straddled the line between playful and terrifying. A scene finds Evie and the girls engaged in what the Family called creepy crawling — breaking into someone’s house to disrupt their possessions, unsettle their comfortable existence. They eat watermelon, smell tubes of lipstick, rifle through closets. Harmless — if exceedingly strange — fun, at least until the owner comes home and Evie tastes her “own stale mouth, the rancid announcement of fear.”
Scenes like these help explain how freaking out the squares might evolve into stabbing them to death. But this is a psychological novel about why the Manson girls murdered Sharon Tate et al. in the same way Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” is a psychological novel about Rochester’s wife’s motivations for being mean to Jane Eyre, which is to say, it isn’t just that.
Instead, like Rhys, Cline makes a literature that embodies oppression — and all the madness, fear, and sorrow that come with it. In the end, Evie is drawn to the girls because of their rejection of the scrutiny of the world around her. “I could pretend I didn’t care,’’ she notes. “I actually started not to care.”
By Emma Cline
Random House, 355 pp., $27
Eugenia Williamson can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.