It is not easy being a teenager in today’s society. The pressure to look a certain way, wear the right clothes, like the right bands and to accept the sexualisation of your entire world can be exhausting, terrifying and confusing. And, of course, the one thing you cannot convince a young person of is that it was equally as hard back in your day. We didn’t have cyber-bullying and pornography was generally hidden away but we were still expected to conform – in one way for our parents and teachers and in a completely different way for our peers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the emotional effects of learning how to become an adult haven’t been turning young people into a mass of contradictory hormonal urges since, well, since we first developed hormones.
Emma Cline’s book, The Girls, doesn’t go back quite that far. Set in the late 1960s it is a chilling reminder that violence and sexual predation were as much a part of the ‘Summer of Love’ as peace, love and understanding. Evie is fourteen and trying to make sense of what is happening in her life – her parents divorce, her father’s new young girlfriend and her mother’s quest to ‘find herself’. She is unhappy but can’t quite put her finger on why, saying ‘they told me I was having fun all the time, and there was no way to explain I wasn’t’. She meets a group of slightly older girls and falls in with them, fascinated by their apparent freedom. As the story is told in flashbacks we realise that she has, in fact, fallen in with a cult and they are all following the whims of their charismatic leader.
This was a really well-written book which kept me thinking about what it feels like to be young and adrift. I was particularly struck by the image it gave me of cult leaders, and other manipulative men I guess, searching out the damaged and the incomplete – almost always girls. What starts off as teen rebellion descends, inevitably, into sexual exploitation, drugs and mindless violence. But it is the girls themselves who will stick in your mind – flawed, damaged and frighteningly real. You’d like to think this is a pure period piece and that girls are not at risk of this kind of exploitation any more but you know that isn’t true…