‘Girls on Fire’ by Robin Wasserman – a chilling look at the darker side of teenage life

I would like to thank Net Galley and publishers Little, Brown Book Company for the copy of ‘Girls on Fire’ by Robin Wasserman in exchange for my review.

Hannah Dexter is your usual High School misfit, a social pariah, subjected to ridicule by the Queen of the school, Nikki Drummond. When she sees new girl Lacey Champlain, a girl who stands out from the rest of the crowd, she hopes to find in her a friend, someone with whom she can share her hatred of Nikki. For a while, Lacey doesn’t notice Hannah, but when they finally meet up, Lacey begins to transform Hannah into Dex, a girl with more confidence and determination than she had ever known was possible, liberating Hannah from the sensibilities of her past.
But what Dex doesn’t know is that Lacey and Nikki are keeping a secret. At Halloween, Nikki’s boyfriend went into the woods surrounding their small provincial town, and commits suicide, leaving behind a simple note, but one or the other of them understands the true reason why.

In a small town community, the fear of paganism is rife and anything which undermines their simple existence must be stamped out. With Dex and Lacey becoming more and more out of control, they anger parents and teenagers alike and as Lacey seemingly turns to witchcraft, it is all too easy for the town to turn against her, driving the story forward to an almost inevitable conclusion which will see Lacey and Dex’s futures intertwined forever.

For me, Girls on Fire is an intriguing look at teenage life, the constant battle to find a place where you truly belong, the feeling of disenfranchisement and isolation that comes from not being part of the popular clique. The relationship between Lacey and Dex is both toxic and yet defining for Dex/Hannah, I that it allows her to tap into a deep seated hatred of the people around her, releasing an inner wild child. The story sort of reminded me of a cross between ‘Heathers’ and ‘The Craft.’ Clear parallels can be drawn between Nikki Drummond and Heather Chandler, the most popular, beautiful and powerful girl in the school. No matter how cruel she is, people will fall over themselves to be her friend, to prove themselves worthy of her attention. The same can be said of the relationship between Lacey and Dex when comparing to ‘The Craft’. While Lex does not actually practice witchcraft, the town’s suspicions and paranoia lend a certain self-fulfilling element to the woes that befall her ‘victims’, and the ultimate breakdown in trust between the two friends is very similar to the way in which the four friends in ‘The Craft’ are pushed apart through jealousy and deceit.

The story is also one of small town America, of a community where church and family and status are valued above all else. Where the paranoia and suspicion of anything which does not fit the status quo drives the need of the community to demonise Lacey rather than look to the cause of her behaviour. A community that is happier to believe she is a witch, than simply a child in desperate need of help and support.
Set at the start of the 1990’s, the story is told primarily from Hannah/Dex’s point of view and the sections where we dip into Lacey’s voice drives the story in as much as we are able to realise there is much more to her hatred of Nikki Drummond than simple envy of her popularity at school. That they share an intimate secret, one which Lacey goes to great pains to keep from Dex. Interjected between the two voices, are three sections from the mothers of Lacey, Nikki and Dex, which give us a different perspective on how they see their children and perhaps what it is that has made them who they are.

I found the pacing of the story just right, although at times I did want the action to move on a little as there was perhaps a little too much wallowing on the part of Dex. The motives of both Lacey and Nikki in befriending Dex are kept well hidden, and the reveal as to the true reason is both surprising and perhaps shocking in equal measure. It was well written, the characters and teenage angst well observed and the sense of foreboding as Dex and Lacey’s relationship progressed kept the story suspenseful, making me want to keep reading on, if only to see how it would finally implode as you know it will.

Overall, I found it to be a compelling story of pre-internet and smartphone school life, where image and social status were everything. The musical and historical references took me back in time (I was just leaving school at this time and can easily recognize some of the pains of late teenage years in the tale, although I never took my dislike of some fellow pupils to this extreme.) A highly recommended 4 stars.