A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
There are fashions with book titles, just as with most things, and right now ‘girl’ seems to be the word book marketers think will induce us to part with our hard-earned. So we have Gone Girl, which is probably where this started (although before that we did have The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl With the Pearl Earring), swiftly followed by The Girl on the Train and The Girl With All the Gifts and Girl in the Dark and The Good Girl and now we have Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman and very soon we will reach peak Girl with a book from Emma Cline which dispenses with all unnecessary qualifiers and is just called The Girls.
But that doesn’t come out until next month, so here I’m focusing on the latest in the Girls collection the aforementioned Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman, a dark tale of coming of age in the 1990s, complete with Kurt Cobain, moral panics about Satanism and the first stirrings of internet culture.
Lacey and Hannah, two teen loners trapped like flies in syrup by the small town conservatism of Battle Creek, Pennsylvania find each other at High School and swiftly become inseparable. They listen to Nirvana, wander the local woods and form a protective unit of two against the local mean girls, headed in this case by Chief Mean Girl Nikki Drummond. The town has recently been convulsed by the suicide of football star and Nikki’s boyfriend, Craig, who in a shadowy preface of Cobain’s own death, goes into those woods one evening and uses a shotgun to put a bullet in his brain. No one quite comes out and says that Satan forced Craig to commit suicide, but everyone kind of thinks that’s maybe what happened.
The truth about what happened to Craig is both more disturbing and complicated. The relationship between Nikki, Lacey and Hannah turns out to follow a much weirder trajectory than the reliable bullies vs victims trope familiar from a substantial proportion of the YA genre. As the tale unfolds, it’s hard to know who to sympathise with, and which of the trio is the most screwed up. Hannah, sexually inexperienced and unable to bond with her refrigerator of a mother, provides much of the moral center of the story as with the help of rebellious Lacey, she eases herself away from the clutches of Battle Creek and its mother and daughter pool parties, but even Hannah it turns out is capable of kidnapping and torture if provoked enough. All the girls in Girls on Fire behave badly, sometimes individually and especially together, but as the inner lives of their mothers is revealed through a series of vignettes, sexual experimentation and the ill-advised consumption of hallucinogenics is probably a preferable fate to early marriage and seeing your dreams die.
Girls on Fire engrossed me and my only criticism would be that the 1990s setting gets a little lost in the mix. What happens in Battle Creek could happen right now, without losing any of its relevance. In fact shifting the narrative 25 years into the past suggests Wasserman thinks that in regard to slut-shaming and other benighted attitudes to female sexuality, things have now changed when clearly they have not and in that respect the story might have packed even more punch if moved to the present day. That said I much prefer the girls in the books I read to use their fists over gossip as their weapon of choice and Wasserman lets rip here with young women who are nothing like the sneakily passive aggressive females we meet in the pages of Gone Girl or Sharp Objects. These girls scream and bite and kick and (arguably) end up none the worse for it. In Girls on Fire the message is that we women would all be the better for a little more biting and kicking and a little less trying to be nice. And who could argue with that?
Robin Wasserman: Girls on Fire (Little Brown) 5 May 2015. RRP £12.99 (hard cover). ISBN: 1408707101