October 2017

by Stephanie Bishop

‘The Burning Girl’ by Claire Messud
Fleet; $27.99

At a decisive moment in Claire Messud’s elegant and compelling new novel, The Burning Girl, the young narrator, Julia, remarks that “growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid”. This fear stems from the female body – what it experiences or is subjected to – and has the capacity to contaminate every aspect of life, even at its most mundane: walking in the street, going to a party, travelling in a car. At the heart of growing up as a girl, Julia argues, is a loss of freedom: “Beware darkness, isolation, the outdoors, unlocked windows, men you don’t know.” The reach of this anxiety turns life into “a kind of pornography” – a teenage girl readily imagines herself to be the tragic star of the show as worst-case scenarios befall her.

These ominous possibilities haunt the pages of Messud’s novel as we follow the lives of Julia and her childhood friend Cassie. The story is narrated retrospectively: Julia, aged 16 or 17, recalls the girls’ pre-teen experiences, and we know from the outset that in navigating this tumultuous period, Cassie’s life has taken a wrong turn. We are told that Cassie is “gone”, but the truth of the matter is slippery.

As Julia slowly pieces things together, she traces the vicissitudes and dissolution of their close bond. She recollects Cassie’s rebellion: walking the streets late at night, the rumours concerning alcohol and boys. Cassie is described as having “gone over to the dark side”, existing like a planet “in shadow”. Julia attributes Cassie’s change of fortune to the moment when her mother partnered up with the sinister Anders Shute, who had “all the power of a father, without the constraints”.

Julia is a good girl, the foil for Cassie’s deviant ways. But she is far from moralising, and as she tells of the events leading up to Cassie’s disappearance, she remains aware of her own bias: “It’s a different story depending on where you start … Each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are.” In the harbouring of divergent narratives the truth evades capture, and Julia’s version is subsequently given as a form of testimony that both honours their friendship and seeks to come to terms with the uncertainties surrounding Cassie’s recent fate.

Across her fiction, Messud has proved herself an expert chronicler of female friendship. In The Burning Girl, Messud extends this theme by bringing to light a period of intense adolescent anxiety in which young women become separated from each other and, at the same time, from themselves. With this novel, Messud shifts to a different register through a younger voice, although the juvenile tone of the narration tends to limit the scope and ambition of the book. Julia’s capacity for insight is curtailed by her naivety and all-pervading “goodness”, and ultimately too much is left unanswered.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is Man Out of Time.

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