History and literature are populated by “bad girls”: The disobedient disturbers of order who delight in chaos and the destruction of society (and men). To many, there’s something inherently terrifying about the teenage girl. She’s hormonal, trapped by expectations and circumstances, enticed by that which she shouldn’t enjoy and powerful beyond even her own apparent limitations. There’s a reason all the early villains in Disney films were women, and why the archetypal teen comedy thrives on the ‘mean girl’ trope.
Robin Wasserman, a YA writer turning her pen to the adult category for the first time, opens Girls On Fire with a request to the reader to pick out any group of teenage girls around them and notice how ‘together, they glow’. Her exceptional novel, equal parts enticing and grotesque, is focused on two particular girls and their explosive friendship. Hannah ‘Dex’ Dexter, wallflower of her small town Pennsylvania high school, meets newcomer Lacey Champlain and they instantly bond over their mutual distaste for their popular classmate and queen bee, Nikki. Their relationship quickly turns deeper, fuelled by the typical adolescent experimentation and boundary pushing, and their adoration sends panic around their town, already on the verge of paranoia thanks to the suicide of Nikki’s boyfriend.
Dex is the everygirl of the tale, over-laboured in her descriptions of the seeming hardships of her banal teenage days in the way anyone who was ever 16 and had a LiveJournal can lay testament to. While Dex waxes lyrical about their unbreakable connection forged on trust in one chapter, Lacey almost cruelly debunks her notions with the truth. Lacey is the Cobain worshipping outcast who manipulates and embraces the condemnations cast upon her because it’s easier to be what everyone wants her to be than try to refute that and be ignored.
The ways in which their bond becomes all-consuming and irrevocably toxic makes for some of the most simultaneously beautiful and upsetting passages in the novel. You know there will be no goodness to come from this friendship and yet you yearn for some semblance of joy because it’s clear these girls, and everyone in the story, deeply craves it. Moments with Dex’s parents remind the reader that the struggles she goes through are probably never going to end. Yet to merely describe this all does it no justice. It should be experienced.
Set in the early 90s, Girls On Fire expertly tackles everything from grunge to Satanic Panic, embracing the notion that we are formed by that which we consume. While Dex and Lacey turn to Nirvana and the burgeoning grunge movement, Nikki watches The Real World and the town queue for tickets to see Honeymoon in Vegas. Reaganism still runs rampant and the purity movement dominates the classroom even as its classmates engage in borderline orgies. Horrific things happen to the women and it’s the women who are blamed for it (the book contains rape, assault, violence and abuse against animals so approach with caution).
While the novel isn’t necessarily plot focused, to give too much away would be to rob expectant readers of the incredible power it possesses. Wasserman accomplishes a juggling act of character and theme that includes so many elements, you can’t help but be astounded by the way she seemingly effortlessly pulls it all off. It’s a novel of incredible empathy that refuses to categorise its messy, dangerous and deeply hurt protagonists into the neat boxes of good or bad that the townsfolk are only happy to finish. Even as it becomes difficult to go on, even as that pain builds up to its inevitable yet no less shocking conclusion, it remains gripping and oddly enticing. Girls On Fire is easily one of the best books of 2016, stunning in its brutality and beautiful in its empathy.