Tale of innocence lost needs a bit more spark

Author Claire Messud (above) charts the pain of growing up and apart in The Burning Girl.
Author Claire Messud (above) charts the pain of growing up and apart in The Burning Girl.PHOTO: LITTLE

Claire Messud, whose previous novel The Woman Upstairs leapt off the page with the fiery anger of its narrator, delves into female interiority again with her latest work.

This time, she tries to get under the skin of a pair of preteen girls who are best friends, but The Burning Girl does not quite set the world on fire.

The girls' story plays out almost like that of star-crossed lovers, with their eventual separation written in their family backgrounds.

Julia Robinson, the narrator looking back on events, hails from a stable middle-class professional family. Her best friend, Cassie Burnes, is brought up solely by her mother, a religious hospice nurse.

They first met in nursery and Julia "can't remember a time when I didn't know her, when I didn't pick her sleek white head out of a crowd... and think of her, some ways, as mine".

The girls get into scrapes such as those involving a dog and an abandoned asylum, but the real horror for Julia is how they grow apart after they are slotted into different classes in high school due to their different academic abilities.



    By Claire Messud Little, Brown Book Group/ Paperback/ 247 pages/ $29.95/Books Kinokuniya/

    3.5/5 stars

While Julia looks set for a bright future, Cassie falls under bad influences. As the latter's life becomes more troubled - her mother's boyfriend moves in and restricts her freedom - she runs away from home in search of her birth father.

Messud parses the pain behind the dissolution of a relationship, an emotional upheaval no matter how young the protagonists.

The book, which reads like an elegiac lament of innocence lost, suggests that to grow up is to lose close friends and even freedom.

In a section that resonates amid news reports of rapes on American college campuses, in villages in India or homes here, Julia muses: "Sometimes I felt that growing up and learning to be a girl was about being afraid... You came to know in a way you hadn't as a kid, that the body you inhabit was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified."

But something does not quite ring true.

Julia, narrating events in her late teens, sounds too precocious for her age. Cassie feels underwritten, coming across as the stereotypical troubled girl and runaway.

But Messud does make an intriguing observation about society's perverse preference for troubled girls to suffer a fatal end - it can then remember such victims fondly (think Laura Palmer from the television series Twin Peaks, for instance).

While one wishes the two lead characters are fleshed out more, Messud's book is nonetheless a welcome addition to books charting the complex interior world of women.

If you liked this, read: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood (Anchor Books, 1998, $26.03, available for order from Books Kinokuniya), in which an artist looks back on her life and childhood in Toronto, including her girlhood best friend-cum-enemy, who continues to haunt her.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline 'Tale of innocence lost needs a bit more spark'. Print Edition | Subscribe