The Burning Girl
by Claire Messud

American novelist and academic Claire Messud writes intense, serious books, the best of which (The Emperor’s Children [2006]) are very good indeed. The Burning Girl sees her tackle that staple of grown-up fiction: teenage friendship turned sour in small-town America (here, Royston, Massachusetts).

Our heroines are Julia and Cassie, opposites who attract, for a while at least. Twelve-year-old Julia is the sensible one whose pulse is accelerated by Cassie, a rebel and her best friend from early childhood. Messud does not delay in telling us that something goes wrong: “Two years have passed. But still, I can’t lie in the sun on the boulders at the quarry’s edge, or dangle my toes in the cold, clear water, or hear the other girls singing, without being aware the whole time that Cassie is gone.”

After almost a decade during which they share everything, the imminence of their teens sparks something in Cassie, who makes new and cooler friends, and starts dating boys, including Julia’s secret crush. A Dickensian or possibly Nabokovian twist arrives in the shape of Anders Shute, who falls for Cassie’s mother and, we slowly realise, Cassie herself.

Messud sacrifices her usual eloquence to ventriloquise Julia with a mixture of naivety and self-conscious­ness that feels spot on without risking sentimen­ta­lity.

A quietly disturbing but gripping novel.