Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman has been on my radar ever since it was published in May 2016. I did not get a review copy back then but as bookish magic goes, I found the book at Bristol Public Library. This was the last book that I borrowed during my visit to England, and it was the cherry on top.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman focuses on the friendship between two girls in a small American town. Following the necessary tend started by Megan Abbott, Wasserman goes against popular believes of young girls as shallow creatures and reminds readers that girlhood can be the perfect foundation for a crime story.
After the suicide of the town’s Golden boy, Hannah finds herself becoming friends with Lacey, the town’s recently arrived girl. Lacey is nothing like Hannah: She worships Kurt Cobain, wears flannel shirts, smokes, and has no respect for her mother. For Hannah, Lacey represents everything she is not, and something that she could be, as she knows that her chunky body and her thin hair will never compare to Nikki’s, the town’s Golden Girl and girlfriend in grieving. As Hannah and Lacey’s relationship develops, Wasserman explores how social discourses emerge as tools of oppression for girls, who in their transition from childhood to adulthood suddenly find themselves subjected to the patriarchy. Not only that, but Wasserman makes her characters reflect on how gender inequalities prominently appear during the teenage years:
What it would be like to be one of them. To have power, to 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.
The relationship between Hannah and Lacey offers both girls the opportunity to explore different identities focusing on fluidity rather than labels and impositions. Even though there is clearly a power relationship with Lacey in control, Hannah slowly finds a voice that is not mainstream and pre-fabricated for her. The setting of the story in the early 1990’s also allows for the inclusion of popular references, such as the importance of Cobain’s imperfect aesthetic and lifestyle (and Courtney Love’s demonization), granting the girls permission to experiment and be different. And even though I was just a kid back then, I could smell the perfect mix of tobacco, Calvin Klein perfume, while hearing Cobain’s voice in the background.
But Wasserman’s novel goes beyond girlhood and explores the complex mother-daughter relationship and the forgotten fact that mothers have been daughters, teenagers, and girls themselves. Lacey’s and Hannah’s mothers act as vessels for failed stories about motherhood, and even though they try their best they are not always the best of mothers to their daughters. Hannah’s secretly wonders how she produced such a vanilla girl, and Lacey’s still looking for the approval of the men in her life. Both women give readers glimpses into the task of raising girls, and how patriarchal discourses try to put distance between mothers and daughters, when there is more to bring us together than apart.
Girls on Fire is also a crime novel, but like Abbott’s works it is not a procedural, nor does it focus solely on the crime. The 1990’s setting opens up a discussion about the decade’s obsession with satanic cults, the demonization of Grunge, and the emergence of the heroin-chic, criticised and admired at the same time. The real crime though, you will have to find by reading this 5-star novel by yourself.