Girls on Fire - Robin Wasserman
Girls on Fire - Robin Wasserman ****
Girls on Fire is a book about boundaries, about testing where those boundaries lie when you are an adolescent and exploring how far you are willing to push your own. Occasionally, if you're daring enough or have someone to nudge you on further, you might stray beyond what society deems acceptable, and then ...well then things become interesting, or perhaps dangerous. Every generation has its own role models that inspire the youth of their day to challenge the boundaries of what society has deemed "safe" and through them find a way to discover and better express their own identity. For the purposes of Robin Wasserman's novel, set in 1992, that person is Kurt Cobain, but for some fans in Girls on Fire whose personalities are a little more extreme, there would appear to be no boundaries whatsoever.
Hannah Dexter however is a good girl from a respectable family in the small town of Battle Creek in a remote corner of Pennsylvania. After an embarrassing run-in with Nikki, the most popular beautiful girl in the school, Hannah discovers she has a friend who sympathises with her and one tough enough to watch her back. Lacey is new to Battle Creek and the kind of person who fearlessly likes to shake things up a bit. She idolises Kurt Cobain and initiates Hannah, henceforth to be known only as Dex, into the secrets of how to have fun, drink, take drugs, play around with boys and not give a shit. Dex and Lacey are going to be the Thelma and Louise of Battle Creek, and can head out west any time they like. The good citizens of Battle Creek however aren't happy, particularly when the behaviour of the girls appears to become associated with Satanic worship.
Speaking of boundaries, the extent to which Satanism becomes an issue is one that pushes Girls on Fire just that little bit further than most books about rebellious youth. Like Sarah Pinborough's recent thriller 13 Minutes however, which dealt very much with similar adolescent issues, Robin Wasserman less evidently references 'The Crucible', where an unhealthy social order feels under threat from some who are unwilling to accept the role that has been assigned to them. Women who don't know their place evidently and, as such, their behaviour and any expression of self-empowerment must clearly be regarded as witchcraft. That's the context perhaps, but unsurprisingly given the nature of the book, Robin Wasserman is prepared to push the boundaries of whatever expectations you might have about this just that little bit further.
Before it all goes to hell (so to speak), Wasserman's explicit descriptions of that buzz of discovery of new possibilities in nascent adulthood are a dizzying rush of sensations. Through the eyes of Dex, the experience is scary at first, wild with abandonment as confidence grows and then scary again as the awareness of unconsidered consequences becomes a reality. Girls on Fire however is not just a rites of passage novel nor, so it claims, is it a precautionary tale. There has been a death at the school and it carries resonances and implications that run beneath the surface. Not so much from a murder-mystery perspective - it's presumed to be a suicide but you might well be suspicious about that - as much as it represents that dark underlying layer of fear and the unknown that Dex has embarked upon. And then there's Lacey, and there's a lot going on there that Dex really knows very little about.
Lacey's perspective is given in shorter first-person alternative chapters, and it presents a much darker reality to the experience of family, influences and friendships. Dex and Lacey's partnership evidently is not an equal one, but it's a vital one, a combination of opposing elements that react in such an explosive way that has the potential to set the world on fire. This is the all-important subject that the novel explores and it's drawn out and underlined brilliantly by the time we get to the conclusion. Empowerment is one thing, and we all know that too much power can corrupt, but the realisation of just how much power women can wield and the devastation it can wreak is something of a revelation. It's perhaps a secret best kept quiet and contained within boundaries ...until the next outsider idol comes along and sets it all off again.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman is published by Little, Brown on 5th May 2016.