In her moving, elegiac new novel The Burning Girl, Claire Messud alludes to childhood as a Wordsworthian time when we still trail “clouds of glory.” For adolescence, though, she invokes the Biblical phrase “through a glass darkly,” meaning that what we think we see and know of life and ourselves is imperfect. That the “weight of the world falls upon us” in adolescence, and pain and fear and uncertainty replace the bliss of being young.
The Burning Girl is a haunting coming-of-age story in the form of recollections narrated by young Julia Robinson, 14, when the story begins. Messud’s accomplishment is her exploration of both the carefree joys of childhood and the “social struggles and the agonies and embarrassments of puberty,” and to pique curiosity from the ominous opening line, “You’d think it wouldn’t bother me now…” But, as the reader sees, it does and always will.
Julia and the thin, almost wraith-like Cassie Burnes, she of the angelic blond-white hair, live near each other in a small town in Massachusetts, having met in nursery school. They finish each other’s thoughts. As Julia says, it’s like they are “joined by an invisible thread,” though they come from radically different families.
Julia’s is middle class and stable, Cassie’s ruled by an erratic, though loving single mom, her father having died when she was an infant. From the start, the girls intuitively connect about everything. They both love dogs and work after school in an animal shelter. They also love to invent roles for themselves, such as when one afternoon, as they wander deep into a forest “where the sunlight falls green and dappled to the soft, piney ground” and come upon an abandoned mental asylum, break in and roam the ghostly emptied rooms creating imperiled characters.
It becomes apparent, though, to Julia and the reader that Cassie tends to go too far. Still, theirs is an endless intense friendship that couldn’t be more wonderful. Until it’s not.
Messud’s storytelling skill is to let the changing relationship between the girls unfold slowly and inevitably, without relying melodramatically on a single turning point, and to let the tale be told by an intelligent, sensitive young narrator who does not readily see how imaginative play when fueled by deep unhappiness may become dangerously self-destructive. Do any of us see this…and in time to intervene? That’s Messud’s wider theme.
The Burning Girl is full of truisms that turn out to be true but ironically so. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” parents tell young children to comfort them. But it’s the same phrase many older kids, flush with a sense of invulnerability, fling back at their elders. The tragic irony is that terrible things do happen to children, especially girls, as Julia sees.
The grace of The Burning Girl is that Messud allows her compassionate young narrator to accept loss, even hate where once there was love, and at the same time, in the face of malice and myths about Cassie preserve marvelous memories that will live on forever.