Reviewed by E.B. Heath
Everybody stands, as she goes by
Cause they can see the flame that’s in her eyes
Watch her when she’s lighting up the night
Nobody knows that she’s a lonely girl
And it’s a lonely world
But she gon’ let it burn, baby, burn, baby
(Alicia Keys, Jeff Bhasker and Salaam Remi.)
At first Claire Messud’s latest novel The Burning Girl feels like an exercise in shadow boxing, simply outlining the shape of two young girls’ lives, and then it starts to pack a punch or two.
Julia and Cassie, both without siblings, were one another’s surrogate sisters, although their only common feature was blue eyes. Everything else different: short and tall, white blonde and dark, academic and disinterested, standard happy middle class with two parents who had expectations versus lonely, volatile single parent mother with a mysterious past. But when they played in a sandpit, aged four, these physical and class distinctions weren’t even noticed. They just blended in together, knowing and understanding one another, connected best friends. And then in middle school all those differences piled into Julia and Cassie’s lives, felt most keenly by the most disadvantaged. One has a future, and one is gradually becoming lost, unable to reach out to those who have loved her forever.
Messud captures this friendship in nuanced prose that builds empathy for Julia and Cassie. She constructs the tragic element of Cassie’s life, why Cassie feels she is taking the inevitable, the only path available to her and how the community felt unable to help. In another culture it might have ended differently; the connection Cassie craves found in tragic pop songs and irresponsible partying as she tries to discover who she can be.
Messud illustrates how changing narratives affect attitudes and beliefs, when nine-year-old Julia and Cassie break into a disused asylum that had been closed for twenty years. Julia wonders where the ‘crazies’ had gone, given that the world wasn’t getting any less crazy.
Unless it wasn’t individuals that changed but society itself: they changed the laws, they closed the asylums, and suddenly the crazies weren’t crazy anymore. . . . it had all been a category mistake.
Julia and Peter, Cassie’s ex boyfriend, try to make sense of the mystery that surrounds her by devising different narratives hoping to uncover the truth of her circumstances. Peter’s account believes for the best; Julia, more intuitively, believes Cassie is in danger. She constructs the possible why and how. Messud’s social commentary does not intrude into the narrative; rather it flows as Julia’s thought process as she thinks about her and Cassie’s situation, how girls learn, almost by osmosis, how vulnerable they are even in a small community. Walking home alone is not the simple act it is for their male counterparts. Ultimately, Peter and Julia have to admit they really don’t know or understand Cassie’s life, or even Cassie herself.
Cassie is also trying to make sense of her difficult life via possible accounts of her biological father. Creepy Anders Shute, her mother’s new live-in partner, is making her feel on edge, and abandoned by her mother, as he takes out his angst on her every move. Acting on nothing more than a set of beliefs she has about her mother’s past life, she puts herself in a perilous place, both physically and mentally.
This novel reads like an amalgam of real young lives that spiral out of control for lack of guidance, not understanding how connected they can be in the community, feeling bereft compared to others whose lives have expectations, and who are helped to map out and achieve their destiny. This is an empathetic coming of age story.
Claire Massud is also the author of: The Woman Upstairs, The Hunters, The Last Life, When the World Was Steady and the bestselling The Emperor’s Children. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Burning Girl
By Claire Massud
ISBN 97 807 08889 862