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10 September 2017

Book Review: The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

Claire Messud's d├ębut novel, The Emperor's Children, is one of my all-time favourite novels and I re-read it once a year or so. Eleven years later comes The Burning Girl, where Messud’s characters are younger and the setting more suburban but the themes remain the same. It took me a little while to get into The Burning Girl, but I was glad I stayed with it because I was rewarded with a tender, haunting and well-plotted novel.

Set in the fictional town of Royston in Essex County, Massachusetts — where I spent two weeks this summer — The Burning Girl follows childhood best friends Julia and Cassie as they enter adolescence and find that the bonds of friendship may not be quite so ironclad as they had once thought. Julia lives with her supportive, upper-middle-class parents, while Cassie's home life is more erratic, especially when her widowed mother starts dating an unsettling new man. But it's Cassie's betrayals that hurt Julia the most as Julia's former best friend falls in with the popular crowd and steals away and then discards a boy Julia liked. Julia is forced to find her own way, making new friends on the debate team, but she is haunted by the decline of her friendship with Cassie, particularly as Cassie stumbles onto a darker path.

The Burning Girl is an emotional portrait of a friendship — and a small town — in decline. Messud's prose is lilting, understated and tightly edited and although it isn't as much of page-turner as The Emperor's Children, with its mosaic of vibrant characters, The Burning Game's heroines are keenly observed and convincing. The cultural references date the setting to the early 2000s but the action could easily have unfolded during the 1980s or 1990s instead — Messud's writing has a wonderful timelessness that allows her characters to feel relevant to readers of all ages.

Disclaimer: The Burning Girl was published by Little, Brown on 7 September 2017. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

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