Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved the woods, the cool sweep of browning greens, the canopy of leafy sky. Hidden in the trees, she picked flowers and dug for worms, she recited poems, timing the words to the bounce of her feet in the dirt. In the woods she met a monster and mistook her for a friend. Into the woods they went, deeper and darker, and carved a sacred ring around a secret place, where the monster dug out pieces of the girl and buried them in the ground so that the girl could never truly leave, and never bear to return”.
“What it would be like to be one of them. To have power, be seen, be heard, be dudes rather than sluts, be jocks or geeks or bros or nice guys or boys-will-be-boys or whatever we wanted instead of quantum leaping between good girl and whore. To be the default, not the exception. To be in control, to seize control, simply because we happened to have a dick”.
“Girls today had to be made to believe. Not just in a higher power, a permanent record, someone always watching – girls had to believe that the world was hungry and waited to consume them. <…> Girls had to believe there were limits on what a girl could be, and that trespass would lead to punishment. <…> They had to believe that life was danger and that it was their own responsibility to stay safe, and that nothing they did could guarantee that they would.”
“Girls had to believe in everything but their own power, because if girls knew what they could do, imagine what they might.”
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
“Girls on Fire” is a story of three girls whose complex relationships have taken them places they could never forget and put them through hell from which they can never recover. Hannah Dexter is practically a nobody in her junior year of high school. After a particularly nasty incident of bullying performed by Nikki Drummond, Hannah meets Lacey – a rude, abrasive, gorgeous Kurt Cobain fan. Soon the two girls become practically inseparable. Hannah becomes Dex and transforms into a badass, brooding girl who is up for any challenge Lacey throws her way. The bond that soldified in dtheir shared hatred for Nikki Drummond is getting stronger and stronger with each passing day. How intense can a friendship of two girls get and how will they deal with the fatal consequences of their activities?
Meanwhile, a tragedy strikes Hannah’s town. A popular guy Craig, who happens to be Nikki Drummond’s boyfriend, shoots himself in the woods on Halloween night for seemingly no reason. The town is terrified – there are rumours going around about a Satan-worshipping gang of misfits who really drove Craig to suicide, and secrets that remained buried until now by Dex, Lacey, Nikki and everyone else in town are threatening to emerge, destroying the girls in the process. How much are they to blame for everything that’s going on? Will Dex and Lacey be able to save each other from everyone around them or is it each other they need saving from?
I must warn you – this is not a happy book. It is very intense and deals with very, very dark subject matters. The themes featured include Satanism, bullying, sexism, homophobia, suicide, murder and rape. So if you feel like spending a day reading a heartfelt novel, put “Girls on Fire” aside for the time being. If, however, an intense mystery with an all-female leading cast is what you’re after, Robin Wasserman’s latest novel needs to be in your hands right now.
Robin Wasserman uses tropes we’ve all seen many times – a teenage party gone wrong, a suicide that’s not all it seems as a flap of a butterfly wing that sets events in motion, a (literal) Chekhov’s gun, a disturbing relationship of a teenage girl with an older man, a transformation of an unpopular girl, parental neglect, and several others. This amount of tropes might seem overwhelming at first, but Wasserman entwines them so masterfully into one long, emotionally draining story you never feel like there’s “too much” going on at the same time. On the contrary – you’re emotionally exhausted at the end of every chapter, but not enough to make you stop reading, and you’re too addicted to the story and invested in the characters to stop at any point, whether it’s just after Hannah meets Lacey and becomes Dex, or after Lacey goes one, two, three steps too far as the book progresses.
The aforementioned tropes work exceptionally well in the atmosphere Wasserman masterfully pushes the reader into. “Girls on Fire” does tell you explicitly a couple of times the time period it’s set in, but even if it didn’t, Wasserman’s incredibly atmospheric writing tells you pretty much from the first chapter onwards. The early 90s were not a good time anywhere in the world to be a girl, and apparently Pennsylvania was no exception. Sexism, racism, homophobia, bullying were much worse back then than they were today, and not once does Wasserman try to gloss over those subjects. In fact, she makes them run through the veins of the book and be the primary cause of the events that transpire in the course of “Girls on Fire”. Everything in this book – fashion choices, music choices, attitudes, expressions, relationships and so on – are so incredibly 1990s. It is a testament to Robin Wasserman’s writing talent that the reader feels as though they’ve been sent back 25 years and are faced with the grim reality of that setting. “Girls on Fire” was very emotionally draining for that very reason and I still feel the chills I got from certain chapters (well, the majority of chapters, really) when I read them. You can see that my “Favourite quotes” section is unusually long this time – that would be because there are so many compelling, chilling passages in almost each chapter, I had a very hard time picking them out.
The author presents us with three very different main characters – Hannah “Dex”, Lacey and Nikki. The first two girls are first-person narrators, and up to a certain point, we only see their “antagonist” – Nikki – through their eyes. Hannah is the misfit who transforms into a badass, Lacey is the headstrong Nirvana fan accused by the town for being a Satan worshipper, and Nikki is the mean popular girl. Except when they aren’t. Hannah and Lacey desperately need each other, but would they have if it weren’t for Nikki? This question, buried underneath the layers of faux Satanism, complex relationships and emotional intensity of obsession, does appear to be the very question the author poses to the reader. Of course, “Girls on Fire” wouldn’t have been the book it is if there was a short answer to that question. First of all, the characters are incredibly complex and multi-dimensional, and even by the end of the book, we still don’t know them well enough to answer the author’s question. Second of all, all the narrators of this book – Hannah, Lacey and the third-person “parent” narrator – are incredibly unreliable. They’re in fact so unreliable that they could give Gillian Flynn’s narrators a run for their money, in my opinion. And finally, the reader doesn’t know the answer to the questions because the characters don’t have one either.
“Girls on Fire” was a disturbing, provocative, dark and emotionally exhausting ride. And I am not ashamed to admit that I rode the wave of all that emotional intensity over a weekend with very few pauses. However, I did need a long break from emotional books after I finished it. I could write a lot more about “Girls on Fire”, but instead I suggest that you buy the book when it comes out in a month.
You might be interested in “Girls on Fire” if you liked:
“Some Girls Are” and “All the Rage” by Courtney Summers
“Dare Me” by Megan Abbott
“Dangerous Girls” by Abigail Haas
Have you read “Girls on Fire” yet? Do you like stories of destructive female friendships? Let me know in the comments!