The Burning Girl

Claire Messud

The Burning Girl
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The Burning Girl

Claire Messud

Julia Robinson and Cassie Burnes have been friends since nursery school. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge: while Julia comes from a stable, happy, middle-class family, Cassie never knew her father, who died when she was an infant, and has an increasingly tempestuous relationship with her single mother, Bev. When Bev becomes involved with the mysterious Anders Shute, Cassie feels cruelly abandoned. Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship.


Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship. Claire Messud brilliantly mixes folklore and Bildungsroman, exploring the ways in which our made-up stories, and their consequences, become real.

Review

Claire Messud is the accomplished author of acclaimed novels The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children. The Burning Girl, is a mesmerising history of the friendship between two teenage girls. Julia and Cassie have known each other since kindergarten. Both only children, they are as close as sisters. Julia, the narrator, comes from a middle-class family. Cassie’s father died when she was a baby, and her mother, Bev, struggles to make ends meet.

Julia tells the story of the last summer she and Cassie experienced as true friends. They work in an animal shelter, swim in the local quarry and play imaginary games in the abandoned asylum nearby. But seventh grade brings new opportunities and friendships for them both, particularly Cassie. Julia is confused and hurt by these changes, and the novel goes on to follow the girls’ divergent paths, with Cassie’s the more dangerous one.

Julia is the kind of narrator I enjoy – wise beyond her years and psychologically astute. Messud’s narrators always pose important philosophical and psychological questions and in this instance the subject matter is storytelling. Julia muses at the start of the book, ‘It’s a different story depending on where you start: who’s good, who’s bad, what it all means.’ As she attempts to piece together Cassie’s path over the next few years, she must rely on rumours and hearsay, while dealing with her own grief at their distance. In high school, Julia discovers acting and public speaking, and becomes passionate about stories. Telling Cassie’s story becomes imperative for her, enabling her to define herself, and possibly even save Cassie, the ‘burning girl’ of the title.

This superb meditation on friendship and storytelling is a must-read for fans of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, or of Megan Abbott’s dark novels about adolescence.


Annie Condon works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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