‘We Used to Be Friends: a review of Claire Messud’s “The Burning Girl”’ by Carody Culver

When I was twelve, I had the kind of friendship you can only really have when you’re twelve. It was the two of us against the world, the world being our parents (they would never understand), our classmates (they didn’t understand either), and our teachers (absolutely, irredeemably without understanding). We had our own world, a world of just two, and that’s how it was, and that’s how it would always be.

Except it wasn’t, of course. I turned thirteen and my parents, in an act that incontrovertibly sealed their total estrangement from the concept of understanding anything, ever, announced that we were moving to Australia. The world of two was cleaved in half; I left with my family, and my best friend and I didn’t see each other for nearly five years.

Add another fifteen years, and we’re still on opposite sides of the world, but it turns out that doesn’t matter. Our friendship was forged in the fires of girlhood; it may not be us against the world anymore, but it’s still us, and that’s how it always will be.

But sometimes, the story doesn’t end that way – those awkward years between childhood and adulthood can pull taut the strongest of bonds until they snap. “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point,” says Julia Robinson, teenage narrator of US author Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl, a quiet but powerful novel about the slow demise of a childhood friendship and the uneven terrain between early adolescence and adulthood.

Messud has described The Burning Girl as “a children’s book for grown-ups”, and it follows in her tradition of novels that tell what literary critic Ruth Franklin has described as “precisely the stories that tend to be most invisible – those of unorthodox women and their relationships with one another, as daughters, sisters, best friends.”

Cassie is the ‘unorthodox woman’, or girl, of this novel: “tiny, with bones like a bird,” but “all you had to do was look into her eyes – still blue eyes that turned grey in dark weather, like the water in the quarry – and you could see that she was tough.” Cassie lives with her mother Bev, a palliative care nurse with whom she has an increasingly troubled relationship, in a little house in front of a dark wood that Julia calls the “Encroaching Forest”; Julia, on the other hand, is a poster child for comfortable middle-class suburbia, with her affable parents and sprawling Victorian-era home.

When the book opens, the girls are still in middle school, and their contrasting personalities – Cassie has a “what-the-hell” attitude, whereas Julia is meeker, and more thoughtful – have formed the bedrock of their friendship since pre-school. The summer they turn eleven, they routinely break into the Bonnybrook, an old women’s asylum – an abandoned gothic pile an hour’s walk through the forest – where they play games of make-believe on the once-grand central staircase and amid the peeling corridors and mildewed rooms of the Isolation Ward.

Inevitably, the start of high school heralds a new and unsettling chapter. Cassie’s relationship with her mother grows unbearably fractious as Bev meets and falls in love with a man called Anders Shute, an enigmatic and rather creepy doctor who quickly moves in with them and begins punishing Cassie for what he deems immoral and slutty behaviour. Cassie finds a new confidante at school, a girl called Delia Vosul, whose “orangey-blond blow-dried hair, bulging push-up bras and shiny lip gloss” leave Julia – ever the good girl, sheltered by her kindly parents and high grades – perplexed, even as she falls in with new friends of her own.

But Cassie doesn’t tell Delia everything; as time passes, she begins to curl inside herself, nursing the long-held conviction that her father – who, according to Bev, died in a car crash when Cassie was three – is alive and well. “When she told me that she was fine, that she was in control, that she knew her limits, I believed her,” says Julia. “Sitting across from her in the cafeteria, with its prison lights and its bad smells, I believed her.”

Cassie makes herself unknowable to those who were once close to her; but when she disappears, the remnants of her bond with Julia remain, and it’s Julia who makes a choice – an adult choice, perhaps – that seals the fate of their friendship.

The transition from girlhood to adulthood is central to Messud’s novel, particularly the idea that adulthood, or maturity, comes at a price: “Now I know,” says Julia, in the aftermath of her actions, “for what little it’s worth, what it means to be a girl growing up.”

When we leave childhood behind, we leave with it a certain kind of friendship, like that kind I had when I was twelve: the happily asphyxiating closeness of spending all your time together, creating imaginary worlds and spinning sugary futures for one another, because everything is still possible, even the fantastic.

“Being in the Bonnybrook was like being inside both Cassie’s head and my own, as if we had one mind and could roam its limits together, inventing stories and making ourselves as we wanted them to be,” Julia says of their last summer as best friends. It’s significant that they play in an old asylum among the silent ghosts of forgotten women, in a place full of unknowable memories and unspoken stories, right before they reach a point in their relationship when they can no longer understand or adequately communicate with each other. “Are we still friends?” Julia asks Cassie, just prior to Cassie’s disappearance:

Her face was suddenly serious. “We’re friends, of course we are. Remember the Girl Scout song?”
“Sure I do.”
“So you’re my gold friend. My goldest friend.” “But?” “But what?” I looked away. “But nothing,” I said, and turned back to her, and smiled a good fake smile.

But we surely experience these losses no less keenly as adults. I felt a friendship end recently, and it was gradual and sudden all at once, like the moment you realise the sun’s gone down and the air on your skin has turned cold. I should have seen it coming, yet adulthood left me unprepared. When you’re a kid, the end of a friendship is like a rite of passage: sometimes dramatic, when playground allegiances shift, sometimes slowly, as you grow up and drift apart. It seems there’s less fanfare when you’re grown up (we reserve that for romantic breakups), perhaps because the strongest friendships of our formative years – even those that end – are the ones that help us shed our childhood skin.

Messud’s gift to readers in The Burning Girl is the primacy she gives to female friendships: the sense that they shape our sense of self in more fundamental ways than we consciously understand, and the devastation we feel when they end. Although Julia tells the story of her friendship with Cassie from the perspective of someone who is not quite an adult – as narrator, she can’t be any older than seventeen – we feel her grief acutely, and her realisation that losing a friend is no easier when you’ve grown up. Perhaps it’s just a different kind of loss, as the older we become, the more unknowable we are to others, and the less of ourselves we’re able to give to them.

“All our stories are more or less made up after all,” muses Julia:

Whatever choices we think we make, whatever we think we can control, has a life and a destiny we cannot fully see… what will be will be, irrespective, not because fate is unassailable but because none of us ever sees face-to-face: through a glass darkly is the best we can manage.

That’s the part we’re supposed to understand as adults, but it’s never so easy – as anyone knows who’s lost a friend and experienced the strange absence/presence of a person who still exists, but no longer has any place in your life. Julie still visits the quarry, where she and Cassie used to go, but she can’t be there “without being aware the whole time that Cassie is gone. I want to say something – but you can’t, you know. It’s like she never existed.”

Carody Culver is a freelance writer and editor who's written for Kill Your Darlings, The Toast, The Lifted Brow, Frankie, Junkee, Archer, Peppermint, Daily Life, Seizure and Books+Publishing. She's co-editor for comedy writing and performance collective the Fanciful Fiction Auxiliary and a contributing editor for Peppermint magazine.