I review Girls On Fire by Robin Wasserman.
This is not a story of bad things happening to bad girls. I say this because I know you, Dex, and I know how you think. I’m going to tell you a story, and this time, it will be the truth.
Hannah Dexter is a nobody, ridiculed at school by golden girl Nikki Drummond and bored at home. But in their junior year of high school, Nikki’s boyfriend walks into the woods and shoots himself. In the wake of the suicide, Hannah finds herself befriending new girl Lacey and soon the pair are inseparable, bonded by their shared hatred of Nikki. Lacey transforms good girl Hannah into Dex, a Doc Marten and Kurt Cobain fan, who is up for any challenge Lacey throws at her. The two girls bring their combined wills to bear on the community in which they live; unconcerned by the mounting discomfort that their lust for chaos and rebellion causes the inhabitants of their parochial small town, they think they are invulnerable.
But Lacey has a secret, about life before her better half, and it’s a secret that will change everything . . .
Starting – and ending – with tragedy, Girls on Fire stands alongside The Virgin Suicides in its brilliant portrayal of female adolescence, but with a power and assurance all its own.
I’ve read a few amazing books recently, and wasn’t sure what to read next. I was flicking through Amazon, and came across Girls On Fire already in my basket. I downloaded the sample of the ebook, and instantly fell down the rabbit hole into a tale so dark, so intriguing, so familiar, that I simply had to finish it.
Hannah Dexter, or Dex, is me as a teenager. And so is Lacey. I was one of those weird girls who was popular in the sense that everyone knew who I was, but not everything (in fact, almost nothing) that was said about me was positive. I drank, smoked, went to parties and experimented sexually. I came from an abusive household and went wild as a way to cope. But I was also the girl who never quite fit in. I wasn’t quite wild enough, quite smart enough, quite pretty enough. So I could relate to both the main characters in many ways.
This is the best kind of cult classic book. Set in the 90s, the best decade, my birth decade, and full of Nirvana, the characters in Girls On Fire are also incredibly complex. The writing is utterly captivating, chapters full of gorgeous, glorious prose.
Girls grew up; girls grew wild.
Wasserman breathes life back into the 90s. Although I was born in the 90s, and so technically a teenager in the “Noughties”, I found myself remembering so much of what Wasserman describes. The music (Nirvana is still popular even now, you know), the clothes, the attitude. But most of all, I remembered what it was like to be a teenage girl. There seems to be this obsession with young women during this time of their lives – it’s as if, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, we’re matches, ready to strike at any moment. We felt dangerous, on the edge of something. We approached things with abandon – dyed hair, make up styles, clothes, sexuality – and blew them up, throwing shadows on the walls, and trying to find ourselves amongst the rubble.
This is the story of Dex and Lacey. It opens with the apparent suicide of a popular boy, and ends with a tragedy you won’t see coming. In between is the story of how Hannah becomes Dex, and the ways in which Lacey touches her life. It’s full of teen spirit, a perfect throwback to not only the 90s, but also the time in our lives that we women remember most clearly.
I wouldn’t be a teenager again for all the tea in china. The insecurities, the turmoil, the unexpected. But I do remember what it was like, and when I remember, I feel the tiniest flame flicker within me. I remember what it was to get blackout drunk at a party and not know how I got home; I remember what it was to kiss girls and worry about what people might say about my sexuality; I remember what it was to get ready for a night out with friends, the camaraderie, the competition; I remember feeling stuck, lost, alone, helpless; I remember what it was to be burning, for something, anything.
This is not YA. This is not suited for girls currently on fire; it’s for when you’re older, and still remember not only the flicker, but also the darkness around it. Girls On Fire is dark, complex, and irresistible, and it will burn you up.