This much-anticipated debut novel of Emma Cline, already a well-regarded short story writer and fiction reader for the New Yorker, will probably get summarised a lot as ‘that Charles Manson novel’.
But while it does indeed fictionalise the Manson murders, it’s really more about the agonies of adolescence.
Plot and structure are superficially simple. Evie Boyd, 14, is the drifting daughter of a failed marriage, languishing in the absent care of a mother preoccupied by her own insecurities. As mum brings home a series of inappropriate men friends, Evie - desperate for attention, for adulthood, for something to happen - is easily drawn into the outlaw community of teenage girls and hangers-on centred on the darkly charismatic Russell, a self-styled prophet with a desperate hankering for a recording deal.
And we all know how that will go... Evie’s account of this dark Californian summer is framed as the recollection of her older present self, who’s house-sitting for a friend and now observes the troubled dynamics of an adolescent girl who comes to stay, and the two dubious young men who accompany her.
In this way, we see that Evie’s own teenage struggle was not just a freak cult occurrence (though the Manson/Russell story massively accentuates the tale), but is more about the nuances of power and performance that play out between partially-formed people - male and female - who are desperate to know who they are. Wonderfully readable, finely written and acutely observed, this is that rare thing: a beach novel of real substance.