The Following Girls by Louise Levene
Amanda Baker is known as Baker because she is friends with three other girls at school named Amanda. Set in the seventies, this follows Baker in her quest to escape her hostile, disapproving father and the values of the adult world and find validation and meaning in the determinedly unimpressed atmosphere of her friendship group. Not that it becomes clear Baker is engaged on anything so romantic and coherent as a quest until it fails; the Mandies drift apart and change into everybody else. Baker tentatively begins a friendship with Julia, the secretly subversive games captain. Again, we only realise how much hope Baker invested in the connection when it falls apart. The book is about the search for option and the acceptance of their absence.
A lot of the point of this book is in its specific atmosphere. Levene emphasises the particularity of the material world of the seventies. It’s almost a sensuousness, this attention to the environmental details shaping our experience. In a kind of contrast to any sensuousness, Levene writes with a keen, often unkind eye. Like her previous book A Vision of Loveliness, Levene portrays a female world where observation is cold and unkindly exact, and unforgiving judgement pervades. It’s not an environment in which Baker’s romanticism can fully form itself, let alone triumph in any way.
I think the Mandies could have been characterised a little more distinctly. Otherwise my biggest quibble is the anorexia which it becomes more and more clear Baker is suffering from, though it’s never directly addressed. Sure, she’s unhappy, but we’re never shown how that specifically maps onto the refusal to eat. It seems too much like a haphazard cherry on top. I felt the novel’s biggest strength was its bitterness of tone.