Marlena is the stunning, intricately thought out début by young New Yorker Julie Buntin. Fresh with clearly remembered and intimately experienced details of the struggle and turbulence of adolescent life, Buntin pours herself into narrator Cathy, caught in a rut of reminiscing and fantasising on the life of her 15-year-old self, back when she had reinvented herself as Cat. Cat is a quiet, bookish girl with a surprising fire in her belly and a generous heaping of dormant, uninspired creativity in her mind. Cat lives in near poverty in a little town on the edge of lake Michigan with her broken family that consists of a distant older brother and a mother lost without the presence of her father. Cue the timely discovery of the wild, passionate girl-next-door – the vivacious and rebellious Marlena, who lives in a barn with her little brother and crystal meth cooking father. It is made obvious from the outset by both commonly understood narratives and the layered subtext of the prose that Cat and Marlena’s intense, delirious relationship is doomed to end in great tragedy, but this doesn’t seem to hinder the novel any. In fact, I found the fact that I knew the duo were doomed to make the book somehow more alive, vibrant and poignant, not to mention a thoughtful treatment of many themes concerning the relationship we build with other women through friendship, sisterhood and motherhood, and reading the weaving of these complex themes through the lens of two teenage girls trapped in a cash-strapped, blue-collar drug riddled, time stagnant town in Mid-West America was fascinating and culturally revealing.
Due to the nature of its main theme and narrative, Marlena joins a veritable surfeit of both recent and past novels eager to pair an outwardly shy but inwardly rebellious female with an outwardly wild and inwardly troubled no-good friend. Some contemporary examples of such novels include Emily Bitto’s The Strays, which follows a young Australian girl named Lily who quickly finds herself immersed in 30s bohemian culture as introduced by free-spirited classmate Eva, The Girls by Emma Cline, a fascinating book which, from the narration of a 14-year-old Evie besotted by the allure of older girl Suzanne, envisages the horrors and cultist lifestyle of the Manson family at its height in 1969, and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which details the break up of two childhood friends from London who suddenly realise they are following diverging paths. All of these novels have much in common with Marlena; a central, complex, female friendship ruled by overtones of a bubbling sexuality yearning to shed its childish innocence and a sub-textually doomed relationship where it is obvious from the outset which girl will inevitably succumb to tragedy and which will retrospectively watch from the sidelines in a wistful melancholy. The difference with Marlena, and where it ultimately surpasses all its aforementioned sisters-in-genre is that it seems to be pointedly aware of the explicit guilt of such kinds of stories in upholding the allure of damaged bad girls and wanton good girls, of its role in perpetuating a layer of sexism and gender stereotyping that’s often forgotten. At times, Marlena even seems to play up to it, such as when Cat muses that women like Janis Joplin, Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe, who all met tragic ends, reached the “ultimate feminine achievement”:“…to be too gorgeous, too fucked up, too talented and sad and vulnerable to survive?” This pointed reference to perceived notions of female mystique and sexuality by author Buntin is almost a challenge to the reader to ponder the question of the romanticisation of damaged women and we, the reader’s, inherent collusion in this because we actively buy into, and enjoy, tales of young women like Marlena, whose life revolves around drugs and neglect, and Cat, sucked in by the narcotic draw of Marlena’s crazy lifestyle. Cat recalls, “I was rewarded with a shock of adrenaline that obliterated my self-consciousness and fixed me to the moment.” She also describes the “giddy pleasure” of going off the rails.
Inevitably, of course, Marlena’s dangerous ways catch up with her and she falls inexorably into harder drugs, harder partying and greater mistreatment of her body and mind and, by Christmas that same year, Marlena is dead, having drowned/frozen to death in the shallow river in the cold, desolate and unforgiving woods that so mirrored the inward emotions of her character. A death like this in a novel like this could easily be overly sickly; too clichéd or mushy. But, just as Marlena defies so many tropes in so many ways, the death and the emotions and plot surrounding it are neither. By cleverly jumping between Cat’s past and present in teenage Michigan and adult New York, Buntin delicately weaves a highly nuanced and realistically blurred world that feels genuine as a memory, as though there are moments or instances that Cat can’t quite recall properly, or moments where she fibs to herself to heighten the drama or make herself look/feel better about her role in what happened.
Marlena is a surprisingly touching, soft exploration of time, memory and loss; a eulogy to those we’ve lost and an in-depth look at what makes us us and what prompts us to make the decisions we make, and love the people we love, especially as young women.