The Burning Girl by Claire Messud, W.W. Norton, 2017
Reviewed by Kim Fu
Julia Robinson, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s latest novel The Burning Girl, is a study in privilege and a stock conception of ordinariness: white, comfortably middle-class, college-bound, sired by well-meaning parents in a suburban, fictional Massachusetts town. No grand, novelistic tragedies befall her. Nothing derails her from her path to a bright, unremarkable future. Yet her adolescence yields the engrossing, atmospheric dread of a horror film, where Julia is the one who survives, conscious all the while of the others being undone by the beast in the next room.
Cassie Burnes, Julia’s childhood best friend, is the principal victim. Julia and Cassie are introduced as physical opposites, Julia a big-boned brunette, and Cassie ephemerally fair, her “bones like a bird,” “her skin translucent,” and her hair a striking white-blonde. The vividness and twinlike intimacy of their prepubescent friendship slowly gives way to Julia watching Cassie from afar, Cassie’s story interrupted by months without contact, filtered through contradictory gossip and hearsay. The girls go from a shared, imaginative world of their own creation—principally in an abandoned asylum in the woods—to existing in separate narratives crafted by others: “in seventh grade, [they] moved suddenly into a world of adult actions and of adult conjecture.” Julia is invited to join the speech team and is put into advanced classes, while Cassie is rumoured to have “been in the boys’ locker room after school, doing things.” Cassie’s home life is complicated by her mother’s new, religiously self-righteous boyfriend, who polices Cassie’s behavior with perverse glee, while the adults in Julia’s life are supportive and encouraging. Directly and indirectly, they all push the idea that Julia has a “brighter star to follow,” and that drifting apart from bad-seed Cassie is inevitable and desirable, however bewildered and betrayed Julia feels by the forces pulling them apart.
The Burning Girl has frequently been compared to Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, but Messud is less interested in the vagaries of female friendship than the brutality and ominousness of youth more generally:
[T]here’d inevitably be a cull along the way, and drugs, or violence, or car crashes or general misfortune, or, for the girls, the folly of careless sex or the evils of predatory men who lurked, unidentifiable as guerilla fighters, among us—then the unspoken cry that echoed from all sides was “Save yourself!”
Julia lists all of the local sexual predators that have been in the news, the women murdered in nearby towns, as any young girl could. And even when things take a calamitous turn for Cassie, it’s within the realm of the ordinary, and not sufficiently tragic to hold the town’s interest: “At school, mostly within days, people moved on to other things: Sierra Franto’s three broken ribs from falling out of the tree outside her bedroom window; Alex Paul’s dad, the undertaker, getting in trouble for mixing up two dead grannies at the funeral home.” The novel is clear, throughout, that Cassie is not an outlier or an extreme case. Her story is presented as the particulars of an experience no rarer than Julia’s relatively charmed one.
A more apt comparison, then, might be Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Adult Onset, where a mother is left alone for a week with her two young children while her partner is away on business, and Macdonald dives deeply and unsparingly into the moment-to-moment torment of parenting toddlers. Like Macdonald, Messud peels back a mundane experience to reveal it as a monstrous one. When accurately described—a rarity—adolescence, like early parenthood, is a grueling, traumatic spectacle, no less so for being commonplace. (The only false note in The Burning Girl is the role of technology, which, for preteens and teens in our present day, reads as oddly intermittent and utilitarian, rather than realistically pervasive and second-nature; one almost wishes Messud had set the novel in the eighties or nineties and simply stripped out all references to Instagram.) The unease of these years permeates the book from start to finish—first as a looming, advancing darkness on the horizon, and then as a miasma of awareness that stains everything it touches. Long before the bleakest events of the novel, thinking only of the quotidian horrors that puberty bestows on even the luckiest among us, its “lumps [and] odorous emanations or secretions,” Julia looks at her fifth-grade cousin as if “across a rough channel to a shore upon which you’d never again set foot.” She longs to say to her, “Can’t you see that I’m contaminated? Can’t you see the grown-up dirt all over me?”
Kim Fu is the author of the poetry collection How Festive the Ambulance and the novel For Today I Am a Boy, which won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, was the finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her writing has appeared in Granta, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Hazlitt, and the Times Literary Supplement. Her next novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, will be published in February 2018.