Review: GIRLS ON FIRE by Robin Wasserman (Harper/Little Brown)

WassermanR-GirlsOnFireUSA powerful, twisty tale of passion, obsession and growing up…

On Halloween, 1991, a popular high school basketball star ventures into the woods near Battle Creek, Pennsylvania, and disappears. Three days later, he’s found with a bullet in his head and a gun in his hand — a discovery that sends tremors through this conservative community, already unnerved by growing rumors of Satanic worship in the region.

In the wake of this incident, bright but lonely Hannah Dexter is befriended by Lacey Champlain, a dark-eyed, Cobain-worshiping bad influence in lip gloss and Doc Martens. The charismatic, seductive Lacey forges a fast, intimate bond with the impressionable Dex, making her over in her own image and unleashing a fierce defiance that neither girl expected. But as Lacey gradually lures Dex away from her safe life into a feverish spiral of obsession, rebellion, and ever greater risk, an unwelcome figure appears on the horizon — and Lacey’s secret history collides with Dex’s worst nightmare.

This is Robin Wasserman’s first novel for adults, and it’s a powerful one. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’m very glad I gave it a try. This is a powerful, gripping novel about a friendship between two polar-opposite girls with secrets and insecurities. It’s atmospheric, realistic and extremely satisfying.

Hannah, or “Dex” as she is re-christened by Lacey, is a well-behaved teenager who is led away from the “light” by the aforementioned Lacey. So far, so relatable. Lacey is a messed-up kid, but we only gradually learn the reasons — her upbringing and also certain events in the woods a year ago… Dex displays all the traits of someone whose imagination is captured by a new friend, a friend who by all appearances is a force of nature; thumbing her nose at society, expressly acting out in just the right way to make the small town’s parents uncomfortable or even afraid. Dex does her best to live the life she becomes convinced she wants, with just Lacey for support and friendship — an us-against-the-world friendship. She’s lost, and Lacey offers the chance to find herself. Girls on Fire is their story — how they navigate not only their own desires, but also each others and the politics of high school. All of the events are overshadowed by a suicide a year ago, one that has cast a pall over the community. And one that will come to change both Dex’s and Lacey’s lives, not to mention a couple of other people who enter their orbit…

WassermanR-GirlsOnFireUKThe story is set against the backdrop of 1990s American suburbia, the moral panic that existed — fears of “satanism”, children run amok, the evils of rock and roll and grunge. It was interesting, especially, because I had recently finished reading Charles R. Cross’s Here We Are Now, about the cultural impact of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. (A very interesting book, by the way.) Lacey’s passion for Nirvana and obsession with Cobain were well-done. So well-done, in fact, that I was put in mind of a school friend’s elder sister, who shared Lacey’s passion (although, she was equally in love with Guns ‘n’ Roses). I’m sure many people will be able to relate to youthful passion, one that we build up to greater meaning in our minds.

Lacey and Dex pull plenty of pranks and stunts that have their community — and parents in particular — worried about them and their fellow teenagers, some of them get out of hand. They push the boundaries, edging ever-closer to the dark side. Before events spiral too far out of control, though, Dex is pulled back a bit. The end, however, is quite the sucker-punch, perfectly executed by Wasserman.

In many ways, Girls on Fire will make you fear for teenage girls, and also maybe a little afraid of them. A must-read for fans of Megan Abbott and Sarah Pinborough, Girls on Fire is a superb novel: compelling, disturbing and excellently written.

Highly recommended.

*

Robin Wasserman‘s Girls on Fire is published in North America by Harper (May 17th), and in the UK by Little, Brown (May 16th).

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