After a frantic US bidding war, Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, earned her an advance north of $2m and now crosses the Atlantic festooned with praise from Richard Ford, Lena Dunham and Jennifer Egan. Cline is young, photogenic and the great-granddaughter of one of the Jacuzzi brothers, founders of a hot-tub empire. The latter fact feels fitting somehow — this is a very Californian novel, to be read between wheatgrass martinis by a David Hockney pool.

Evie Boyd is 14, daughter of a broken home in late-1960s Sonoma, short and average and just one of any number of “inexperienced adolescents in the farm belt”. The 1960s are swinging elsewhere, over the horizon in Haight-Ashbury, or in New York and London. Evie and her friend, the sullen Connie, spend their time beautifying themselves, or mooning over Connie’s older brother and his friends. The early sections of the book nail down precisely the ennui and competitiveness of teenagers, the fragility of those half-formed egos. I was reminded repeatedly of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep — another novel that took me straight back to fraught adolescent years.

Sittenfeld is an obvious comparison to make here, as is Ann Patchett. Both authors straddle the commercial/literary divide, writing novels that manage to please both the critics and the book-buying public. The Girls is compulsively readable, particularly when Evie discovers “the ranch”, a commune on the outskirts of town where a gaggle of hippyish girls gather around the charismatic Russell Hadrick. The leader of Hadrick’s harem is Suzanne, who’s 19 and dresses with “shabby afterthought. As if dredged from a lake”. Evie is immediately drawn to the girls, and particularly to Suzanne, envying the way “they held hands without any self-consciousness and dropped words like ‘harmony’ and ‘love’ and ‘eternity’”. An air of danger surrounds the group. Evie has heard of “orgies . . . frenzied acid trips and teen runaways forced to service older men”. Sure enough, she’s soon sucked into what we recognise as a Charles Manson-ish cult.

While the subject matter is familiar — this is TC Boyle’s Drop City meets Donna Tartt’s The Secret History — it’s the prose that makes The Girls such a strikingly accomplished debut. Evie’s voice shimmers with vivid metaphorical language: she feels “the nothing jump of soda in my throat”; ankles are “gruff with stubble”; a couple drive with “Avis maps at their feet gone translucent with hamburger grease”.

Cline’s great skill is to unfurl these flourishes without them ever feeling laboured, without detracting from the poolside readability of the novel. While some of the prose’s rhythm feels a little creative-writing-class, with lots of jagged, five-word sentences (never trust a sentence without a verb, my grandfather always told me), there are some truly breathtaking passages — lush and lapidary and full of startling imagery.

The story’s narrative is intercut with episodes from Evie’s later life, when she’s housesitting for a friend, depressed and varicose-streaked, awkwardly cohabiting with her friend’s ne’er-do-well son, Julian, and his put-upon younger girlfriend, Sasha. Here, The Girls reveals new layers of complexity: this is an insidiously angry novel, one that seeks to subject “the afterburn of the sixties” to sterner critical examination. In these contemporary scenes, Evie watches Julian mistreat Sasha just as Hadrick and his entourage of rich and powerful men had abused the girls of the ranch. “Poor Sasha,” she says, “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.”

The novel ends with Evie, bitter, furious, having dinner with a film-maker old enough to be her father. “The filmmaker wanted me to know what I already knew: I had no power. He saw my need and used it against me . . . The filmmaker laughed at me, and so did the others, the older man who would later place my hand on his dick while he drove me home.” For Evie, as for Sasha, the world is one of predatory men preying upon women who are conditioned to offer themselves up as prey. It’s a fierce challenge to our received notion of the 1960s as an era of peace signs, protest marches and free love, and adds a note of profundity to this highly impressive first novel.

The Girls, by Emma Cline, Chatto & Windus, RRP£12.99 / Random House, RRP$27, 368 Pages

Alex Preston is author of ‘In Love and War’ (Faber)

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