The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

Female friendship on fire: The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

The Burning Girl is a novel about female friendship, growing up, and whether real life lives up to the stories. The narrator is Julia, a girl from a solid middle-class family, as she describes her friendship with Cassie Burnes, whose relationship with her single mother Bev is often tempestuous, especially after Bev gets a strange new boyfriend. As the pair get older they drift apart, but Julia’s penchant for imagining and creating stories doesn’t stop her thinking about what Cassie is doing, even when Cassie goes to desperate measures to find a life beyond the home that no longer feels like one.

The narrative is written with hindsight through the unreliable eyes of Julia, which makes for a strange yet distinctive style and a real awareness of the longing and loss of friendships drifting apart. At first it is difficult to see how the events will become more relevant, but after a certain point it is quite easy to work out how they will fit together. Despite this predictability, the novel captures very well a sense of growing up and being aware of the adult world in certain ways, a process that can be ominous and confusing. What Messud particularly emphasises is how Julia finds it difficult to deal with the breakdown of her friendship with Cassie—a girl she claims to know better than Cassie knows herself—and the intensity of still knowing all about somebody that you are no longer close to.

The Burning Girl has some captivating moments and a cleverly ambiguous ending reflecting the messages of the book. It can take a little while to get into, but is a novel that can be enjoyed by both adults and older teenagers for its careful evocation of a relatable feeling of lost friendship and imagination.