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Non 1001 Book Review: The Burning Girl Claire Messud

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Book Worm read this book a while ago and I received a copy of the book in my Indiespensables subscription (which is awesome if you are a literary fiction reader). I hope to read my copy soon. Here’s what Book Worm thought of it…The Burning Girl by Claire Messud
Published in: 2017
Reviewed by: Book Worm
Rating: ★★★
Find it here: The Burning Girl

This ARC was provided by Little Brown Book Group UK (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Julia and Cassie 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 and Cassie sets out on a journey that will put her life in danger and shatter her oldest friendship.

Claire Messud, one of our finest novelists, is as accomplished at weaving a compelling fictional world as she is at asking the big questions: To what extent can we know ourselves and others? What are the stories we create to comprehend our lives and relationships? Brilliantly mixing fable and coming-of-age tale, The Burning Girl gets to the heart of these matters in an absolutely irresistible way

Book Worm’s Thoughts: There are a lot of things I love about this novel, but I have one major gripe that really interrupted my enjoyment of the story and that was time.

This is a first person narrative and Julia, our narrator, is relating the events that changed her life> These events take place when Julia is between the ages of 12 and 15, but I have no idea how old the narrator is meant to be, or what year the narrator considers to be the present. There are some pop culture references thrown in but these only confused me more. I had no idea what year it was when the narrator was 12 and I found this really distracting for a number of reasons.

My issue with timeline aside, I was sufficiently gripped by the story to read this in one day. From the opening paragraph (below), I knew I needed to know the answers and as fast as possible.

“It’s a different story depending on where you start: who’s good, who’s bad, what it all means. Each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we. I can begin when Cassie and I were best friends; or I can begin when we weren’t anymore; or I can begin at the dark end and tell it all backwards.”

I absolutely love the section when the girls are 12 and best friends — when they know they will be friends forever and that no-one will ever know them as well as they know each other. I found it easy to relate to them both. These are not girls obsessed with boys and make-up. Instead they love animals, cycling, and exploring and they are not afraid to break the rules (within reason) if it makes for a more interesting day. This felt like reading about myself at that age.

I enjoyed the fairytale images in the book. There was the house at the edge of the “encroaching forest,” the description of Cassie who is small, bird like, and has amazing white blonde hair, and the fantasy stories of heroes and heroines that the girls imagine for themselves. These were beautifully evocative images for me.

As the girls get older their feeling of invincibility is gradually eroded away. One of the central themes of this novel is what it means to grow from a child to a woman and how the world suddenly becomes a more dangerous place.

“Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in a movie  theatre or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.”

At its heart, this is a story about friendship, coming of age, and the memories we have of our childhood. It is also a love story. Who is not totally and innocently in love with their first best friend of childhood? They are the first person you imagine you will know your whole life and that feeling is present throughout Julia’s narrative.

Burning Girl is also about the changing pressures facing young women, the need to express yourself and be accepted which can lead to risky behaviors (behaviors that would gain applause if you were a young man), the need to understand who you are as a person, and the psychological damage which can occur when your version of you is undermined by others and how they see you.

Who would like this? I would recommend this to those who enjoy first-person narratives, (if you hate them don’t pick this book up) and those who don’t mind a book that leaves things unexplained (this would normally drive me mad but in the circumstances of the novel it made perfect sense).

Want to try it for yourself? You can find a copy here: The Burning Girl

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? 

 

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