The past 10 years have seen a parade of sexually damaged Girls in fiction — and by girls, of course, I mean women in their 20s and 30s. After Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and all the other creatively abused women, you could be forgiven for thinking Claire Messud's The Burning Girl is another would-be best-seller about gendered violence and retribution.
But The Burning Girl is instead a subversive commentary on the stories we tell about women and the ways those stories circumscribe our lives. Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the death of a beautiful woman is "unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." In her new book, Messud says: Not to us.
Cassie and Julia met in nursery school: "I can't remember a time when I didn't know her," Julia writes, "when I didn't pick her sleek white head out of a crowd and know exactly where she was in a room, and think of her, some ways, as mine." They call themselves "secret sisters" — "umbilically linked" until Cassie's mother, Bev, lets Anders Shute, a thin-lipped, puritanical doctor with cheekbones like "a death's head" and a strange interest in Cassie, move in with them, and something goes wrong with Cassie. She stops being present, starts hanging out with other people, even dating the boy Julia had a crush on.
"My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point," says Julia. But when Cassie goes missing, Julia uses the "invisible thread" still running between them to try to find out what happened.
We know how the story of a wild runaway girl with creepy stepfather is supposed to end. Women have a "deep understanding of how stories go, how they should go, and when a teenage girl walks alone in the night there is a story, and it involves her punishment, and if that punishment is not absolute — rape and even death itself — then it must, at the very least, be the threat of these possibilities, the terror of them."
Those stories have such firm presences on the margins of our lives that even when they don't come true, they form the negative space around us. Worst of all, Julia thinks, you hear enough of those stories, and they become the only kind you can imagine in which you are the hero. If Cassie dies, she will be "duly cleansed and elevated." She would be "sweet Cassie, injured Cassie, neglected Cassie, beautiful Cassie, of the azure eyes and fire-white hair, a Cassie purged by suffering. The town of Royston would have claimed and redeemed her." But what if she hasn't died, hasn't been raped, hasn't been abused? Would the town just turn away, bemused and bored by the lack of a comprehensible, familiar story?
All these Girl stories, of course, serve a purpose. After all, it is mostly women who write them and women who read them. These things happen to us in the real world, and we use fiction to help us understand and anticipate them. But Messud reacts against the particular strange, voyeuristic relish with which our culture lingers on the pretty dead girl, the way she seems to blot out the other options.
Messud writes about that exultant, conspiratorial connection between female friends, the way we create each other. One day, Julia and Cassie break into an abandoned asylum for women called Bonnybrook and wander through air thick with dust: "The Bonnybrook was at once the most unlikely, vivid experience of our lives up till then, and like a dream — a dream, miraculously, that Cassie and I dreamed in tandem, touching, hearing, and feeling together ... Being in the Bonnybrook was like being inside both Cassie's head and my own, as if we had one mind and could roam its limits together, inventing stories and making ourselves as we wanted them to be." Despite all the dangers lurking around the edges of that scene, in that moment, Julia and Cassie are their own authors.