After the terrible thing happens to Cassie, rumors fly at school. They’re lies, of course, cruel fabrications concocted for titillation or to make sense of the horror. No one is stupid enough to tell them to Julia.
From the time they were tiny, she was Cassie’s best friend, and even though there’d come a painful rift in adolescence, Julia still understood her more intimately than any of the rest of them. That’s what she tells herself, anyway. And she does know some of the truth of what happened to Cassie, because she was there — at least for the ugly finish.
“Two years have passed,” Julia, the narrator of Claire Messud’s new novel, “The Burning Girl,” tells us at the book’s beginning. “But still, I can’t lie in the sun on the boulders at the quarry’s edge or dangle my toes in the cold, clear water, or hear the other girls singing, without being aware the whole time that Cassie is gone.”
If, right there, you riffle quickly through your mental file of Bad Ends That Come to Young Women and start guessing what tragic event befell Cassie, you are helping to prove Messud’s point: that in the stories we tell about girls — the stories they grow up absorbing from the culture, in which meek girls are rewarded and bold ones made to suffer — we cling to tropes that limit their possibilities, sometimes in toxic ways.
Messud has said that she means “The Burning Girl” to be “a children’s book for grown-ups,” and you can glimpse wisps of that intention in its pages. But in novels like “The Woman Upstairs” and “The Emperor’s Children,” her prose is powerful and sleek, whisking the reader into the world she’s made and carrying us right along. “The Burning Girl” has none of that velocity or ease.
The trouble is a basic one, which isn’t to say that avoiding it should have been easy. Messud has created a narrator who doesn’t sound remotely as if she’s in high school. In recalling her friendship with Cassie — that golden summer when they were 12, on the cusp of seventh grade — Julia’s insights seem to arrive from the distance of middle age: “Some things happen fast, like a car accident or a heart attack; other things happen slowly, like the disintegration of a friendship or a marriage. . . .”
Also, Julia has lived her whole life in a North Shore town called Royston, yet her syntax is British, or Commonwealth of Nations. She mentions parties “at the weekends” or someone sleeping rough, and we think: Nope, this is not the language of American suburbia. (Messud, who lives in Cambridge, grew up partly in Australia and Canada. Her husband, the critic James Wood, is British.)
Individually, neither of these difficulties is fatal; “Room,” for example, the kidnapping novel by the Irish writer Emma Donoghue, is also unable to find an American tone, but its story is so richly imagined that you can look past that. In “The Burning Girl,” the combined failures of voice make Julia an unreliable narrator in the most fundamental sense: We don’t believe in her existence. As we try to follow her into the story she’s telling, we keep knocking up against reminders of that.
Which is too bad, because Messud is psychologically astute about her characters and about the competing social and familial pressures — including, between Julia and Cassie, a difference in economic class and thus the expectations placed on them — that make adolescent friendship and its dissolution so fraught. But Messud cannot will her imagination fully back to that age; she remembers what it was like, but not clearly enough to evoke it. Her most pronounced sympathies lie with the adults, Julia’s mother in particular.
The summer that they are 12, Julia and Cassie secretly go adventuring to an abandoned psychiatric asylum, an elegant old ruin where women used to live. The episode is creepy and strange, with echoes of Alice through the looking glass and Dickens’s Pip at Miss Havisham’s. Yet it also contains Messud’s insistent wish for stories about girls: that daring — stepping outside the usual confines — doesn’t need to lead to tragedy.
There is in girls, she posits, a “deep understanding of how stories go, how they should go, and when a teenage girl walks alone in the night there is a story, and it involves her punishment, and if that punishment is not absolute — rape and even death itself — then it must, at the very least, be the threat of these possibilities, the terror of them.”
Such stories can be harmful, if they color your understanding of how to walk through life. “The Burning Girl” is a hobbled argument against them.
THE BURNING GIRL
By Claire Messud
Norton, 256 pp., $25.95Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.