I can’t remember where I heard about this book or why I jotted it down on the ever-expanding list of books to read that is constantly being updated in my phone. But then I happened upon it at the library while looking for something else and said, well there had to have been a reason I wanted to remember it for later, right? Turns out my intuition was wrong this time, as this was not an enjoyable one in my opinion. It’s funny, I actually started this novel immediately after finishing the graphic novel, Skim, and found a few coincidental similarities in the plot points: lonely girl in a small town, girl trying out new identities, friends that may actually be more toxic than good for you, small town rattled by a teen boy’s suicide, girlfriend of the deceased is queen bee of the school but may in fact be more than she appears to be, etc. But let me be frank when I say that beyond these surface similarities, they were very different books with drastically different tones.
Girls on Fire follows the back-and-forth points of view of two teenagers in the early 90s in the small town of Battle Creek. Hannah Dexter is a bit of a wallflower-type, living a quiet and predictable life, but everything gets turned around once she becomes drawn to a new student, named Lacey (who likes to refer to Hannah as “Dex”). Lacey comes from a difficult family life, and finds inspiration in the grunge-scene, in particular the music of Kurt Cobain. The two girls engage in a fast and furious friendship, Lacey basically molding Hannah into the exact little counterpart of a sidekick that she wants her to be. But after the death of a popular student named Craig, the town is more likely to turn on its young people who don’t seem to fit the desired mold (which of course includes Hannah and Lacey). As well, there may be more to Lacey than she lets on to Hannah, as the presence of Craig’s girlfriend, Nikki, soon comes to create a rift between the two girls who seemed to want to just create their own little world with little room or regard for anyone else.
Now, in some ways, this novel is intriguing in how it depicts just how quickly and fiercely two girls can engage in a friendship with one another, how deep trust can be when you feel like you can no one else. There is also accuracy in the portrayal of how teenagers can think they are being so individual while still following such a particular style wave, how cruel teenagers can be to one another while still pretending to be friendly on the surface, and how this cruelty can stem from the boredom of their surroundings; in addition, the secrecy of what is really going on in young people’s lives, despite their parents best intentions to be involved or desire to want to help is on display here, in such a minimal way that made me perhaps want to see a bit more of it.
But despite these aspects which could have made for a relatable and exciting story, it is all incredibly messy. Not that life can’t be messy and down and dirty, but this was really almost too much at times in this novel. It felt like it was trying so hard to be edgy and provocative: and to be honest, I understood at times where the characters were coming from (in particular, Lacey’s destructive tendencies), but ultimately, they were so unlikeable I just couldn’t stand them. Or, frankly, anyone else in the story: the only character who I found redeemable or who I could get behind was Hannah’s mother, but she is barely involved. Everything is so destructive and feels like an excuse to be shocking. There is quite a good little piece about the nature of violence in women that is often subdued or they are not allowed to express near the end, but at that point I just couldn’t get behind it. Hannah was a pawn in the other girls’ games the whole time, and when she finally had a chance to channel her anger and have more of her own agency, she fell back into a role that was shaped for her. You know those people who think they are so different and above-it-all because they are “free thinkers” who really just spew verbatim that they heard from some other free-thinker who told them exactly how to act and think? Yeah. It’s these girls. I just didn’t feel connected with any of the characters beyond the most basic surface level, and so while I could understand their motivations to a point, I never felt like they were rounded or organic: just fulfilling an expected role or trope.
I guess I would call Girls on Fire a book with potential, that ultimately falls into a state of overindulgence: it is overly messy, and overly cruel. I do think we need more stories where women are allowed to express their anger and discontent in a world which wants them to just lay back and be excessively accommodating without a fuss all the time. But this one didn’t quite hit the mark.