Book Review: The Girls

The Girls by Emma Cline is a novel about a cult “inspired” – an odd word in this context – by the Manson Family and a girl, Evie, who becomes drawn into cult activity.

The Manson Family was an American cult, consisting mostly of women, led by Charles Manson in the late 1960s. The Manson Family responsible for a series of heinous murders in Los Angeles.

The Girls was written with a framed narrative from Evie’s adult perspective, as she tries to rebuild her life and an embedded narrative from Evie’s child perspective as she gradually becomes induced into the cult.

I think the novel may have worked equally as well without an adult perspective to frame the narrative; this would have left Evie’s future more open-ended. However, I liked that the adult perspective revealed what became of certain cult members once they were discovered.

The Girls was written in an incredibly effective first-person narrative voice. It spotlighted the deepest thoughts and desires of a young, vulnerable girl who wanted to be seen as beautiful, or clever – or simply be seen. It was clear, and saddening to read, how the cult provided her with that affirmation and drew her in.

The climax of The Girls was quite sudden; I was left wanting a little more – I could happily have had more of Cline’s writing, more of the story.

Evie’s manipulation and acceptance of the cult was shocking. It was also horrid to read how Russell, the older and manipulative cult leader based on Manson, coerced young girls into sexual activity by describing it as “sharing love” with one another.

Of course, unless you’re in that scenario, it’s incredibly difficult to believe people accepted the cult ideology. I couldn’t understand why Evie didn’t question what she was told. I couldn’t understand why her parents didn’t question Evie’s absences, her new appearance, her new behaviour.

The Girls highlighted how some parents are so barely interested or involved in their children’s lives that their child could join a cult and they would still have no idea. That shouldn’t happen.

In terms of writing style, The Girls was an easy read. In terms of content, it was not. You should read it anyway.

– Judith


Book Review: Lady Audley’s Secret

Lady Audley’s Secret is a Victorian sensation novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It is about Lady Audley, a beautiful lady residing with her wealthy husband at Audley Court. In addition to her material wealth, Lady Audley also has a wealth of secrets. She challenges the notion of stereotypical femininity, and her brother-in-law, Robert Audley, gradually begins to suspect all is not right at Audley Court.

Reader, I liked it.

As a late Victorian novel, the language is not too dissimilar to modern language and so was fairly easy to read.

There were plenty of plot twists that prompted me to work out various marriage connections and secret identities. However, some of the bigger secrets became apparent rather early on – perhaps this was intentional – but it made me dually satisfied to see Robert Audley discover clues and exasperated he didn’t realise sooner what was obviously going on.

Lady Audley’s Secret foregrounds the Victorian pragmatism of marriage. Throughout the novel, male characters encouraged women to choose a marriage partner they deeply loved – as if it were that simple. Given the Victorian restrictions on a woman’s independence and finance, they relied on good husband for security, which is exactly what Lady Audley did.

However, though I really liked Lady Audley’s cunning and atrocious schemes, by marrying well, she becomes protected by her position and the manipulative hold she has over her older, richer (and oblivious) husband.

This reflects how the upper-classes could avoid punishment – or even any ‘disgrace’ – if they had sufficient status and wealth, whereas the lower-classes would be imprisoned immediately. In turn, this suggests money and status make you above or outside the law, – something still wholly relevant today.

Spoiler Warning: I try to keep my reviews mostly spoiler-free. From here on in, this is an exception. Sorry.

Despite my enjoyment of the villainous actions and maliciousness of Lady Audley, she is  eventually robbed of her agency.

 ‘George Talboys had been cruelly and treacherously murdered’

As it happens, Lady Audley hadn’t actually murdered George Talboys, contradicting her characterisation as a scheming, dangerous woman. Plus, the involvement of lower class characters within this plotting then reinforces the stereotype that the lower-classes are the true criminals after all.*

* I made a similar point discussing this with Sherlock Holmes last year.

To me, the ending was also wrong. Most characters received a conventional “happy ending”. Fair enough, though it seems contrite within the context of all the shocking sensationalism prior. Lady Audley however, dies naturally in a ‘madhouse’ in Belgium. There’s no trial, no exposure, and no punishment – except arguably the loss of her position. Everything is kept secret or attributed to Lady Audley’s supposed ‘madness’.

I don’t believe Lady Audley was in any way mad; I think she was a rational, cold-hearted woman who used despicable crimes to better her status. Yet of course, these facts are ignored because of that key word: woman.

‘To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex.’

Given the rigidity of Victorian stereotypes, no one thought a woman could be capable of anything more dangerous than cross-stitching.  This is partly what takes Robert Audley so long in his investigation; he can’t (or doesn’t want to) face the prospect that is sister-in-law could be capable of such deeds. But then again, given she doesn’t actually murder George Talboys, perhaps Lady Audley isn’t capable after all, and thus the Victorian stereotypes are reinforced.

Some others may die at her hands. But enough spoilers.

If I haven’t completely ruined the book for you, then you should read Lady Audley’s Secret.

– Judith

Book Review: Coot Club

Coot Club is the fifth novel in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. There are 12 books in the series in total.

The book is about Dick and Dorothea, who visit the Norfolk Broads during the Easter holidays, keen to learn how to sail. They meet a new group of friends – members of the eponymous Coot Club – and explore the North and South Broads together.

The start of Coot Club was bonkers but fun. Likewise, the ending was funny and enjoyable. However, the parts in between were not as entertaining.

Lots of new characters are introduced – too many, I think – as well as the names of the boats they each sail. This made it incredibly difficult to remember who was who and which boat was which. These new characters didn’t seem to be developed in any detail – excluding Tom, who was suitably independently-minded and witty and William the pug, who was arguably the most characterised of the entire cast.

Furthermore, Port and Starboard, the girl twins with an aptitude for sailing – hence the nicknames – felt like a weaker version of Nancy and Peggy from the previous books.

I think part of my issue with Coot Club was having only just become acclimatised to the “original” characters (John, Susan, Titty, Roger, Nancy, Peggy, Dick and Dorothea) and the original Lake District setting, Ransome introduces new characters, in a new setting, with a new story. And they say people don’t like change…

Given the title, Coot Club not only involves a lot of sailing but bird-watching too – especially of coots.  I liked the variety of birds identified and described by Dick; I’m trying to spot and remember types of British birds myself at the minute and this reinforced some in my memory.

My Photo [Coot Club 2]
‘Coots can be found in large numbers, along numerous waterways up and down the country’. Image via Canal River Trust

Coot Club took me a lot longer to enjoy, and it eventually became a struggle to read. This is such a shame because I’ve enjoyed reading the series so far. Oh well, I can’t have everything.

– Judith