Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire is the kind of book that will give people nightmares, and when I say “people,” I specifically refer to people with daughters. Of which I am one. Of the many things which scared me about this book, here are a few: the intensity of teenage girls’ friendships; the secrecy and insularity of these bonds; the excessive amounts of underage drinking. There’s a short line to be drawn between Girls on Fire and Skins, The Craft and Heathers, and that line is exactly what will be giving me nightmares in about 13 years.
The novel begins with a prologue of sorts: an omniscient narrator extolling the virtues of girls, while also listing their faults. See them in the golden hour, a flood of girls high on the ecstasy of the final bell, tumbling onto the city bus, all gawky limbs and Wonderbra’d cleavage, chewed nails picking at eruptive zits, lips nibbling and eyes scrunching in a doomed attempt not to cry. Here, in the book’s opening sentence, Wasserman encapsulates the multiple contradictions inherent to girlhood; the innocence of “lips nibbling” juxtaposed with the sexual imagery of “Wonderbra’d cleavage;” the “ecstasy of the final bell” contrasting sharply with the “doomed attempt not to cry” perfectly summing up the binary opposites of feeling when you’re a teenage girl. There’s a clear sense of something not-quite-right in this opening, but no idea of the scale of the not-quite-rightness to come.
Dex’s mother knew she should be afraid for her daughter. This, she’d been told, was the tragedy of birthing a girl. To live in fear – it was the fate of any parent, maybe, but the special provenance of a mother to a daughter, one woman raising another, knowing too well what could happen. This was what lurked inside the luckiest delivery rooms, the ones whose balloons screamed It’s a girl!: pink cigars and flowered onesies and fear.
At the beginning of the novel, Hannah is fairly innocuous; barely noticed at school except for suffering at the hands of Nikki, an inexplicably popular monster, desperately in need of someone to take an interest. That someone is Lacey, who swiftly rechristens Hannah as “Dex” and completely changes her personality for her. Girls on Fire is firmly focused on the relationship between these two, and the change Lacey brings about in Dex is basically terrifying; rather than the manic pixie dream girl seen in so many coming-of-age stories, Lacey is something of a monster – a manic witchy nightmare girl, if you like. Lacey is truly a girl on fire, with a grudge against the world and a willingness to treat anyone around her as collateral damage. In short, it’s not exactly hard to predict bad things will happen with her around.
“I can’t believe you have a car,” I said. I didn’t even have a license. “If I had one, I’d drive away and never come back.”
“Want to?” Lacey said. Like it would be that easy to Thelma-and-Louise ourselves out of Battle Creek for good. Like I could be a different girl, my own opposite, and all it took was saying yes.
Reading Girls on Fire, I found myself fighting the urge to scream at Dex to wise up; she’s naive in a completely convincing but still frustrating way, following Lacey and everything she does with such unthinking devotion. These days, reading about an essentially nice girl being led astray brings out the terrified mother in me; rather than seeing Lacey as a source of great excitement and, in fairness, excellent musical recommendations, I found her an alarming reminder of all the things I’ll be worrying about when my daughter is a teenager. Nikki is on a whole other level, doing something so incomprehensibly vile that it’s hard to feel any sympathy with her at all. If you read Girls on Fire as a study in the psychology of teenage girls, you won’t discover anything particularly nice here.
Although Girls on Fire is not actually like American Psycho, I find that my reaction to it, a few days after reading, is similar; at times it was difficult to read, and I physically flinched more than once, particularly towards the end. Unlike Bret Easton Ellis’ book, there’s no reassuring sense here that none of this is actually happening; as events become more and more out of control, the prose becomes more visceral and the reader becomes more horrified. I think Girls on Fire is an excellent book. I also think it’s really disturbing.