The burning girl is Cassie - a beautiful teenager with white-blonde hair, near-translucent skin and “a Georgia Jagger gap between her front teeth”.
She's Julia's best friend; the two have been inseparable since nursery school.
Or they used to be. At 12, they drift apart. “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point,” says Julia, but like a betrayed lover who can't leave the past alone, she's haunted by the loss.
What actually happens to Cassie is in question for much of the novel - 'The Burning Girl' definitively isn't this year's 'Gone Girl' or 'The Girl on the Train', but it does offer a literary take on the broader themes that underlie these popular thrillers. Claire Messud’s narrative concerns itself with the ultimate mysteriousness of those we think we know, as well as the possibility of a disappearance of a different kind to the horror stories that make news headlines.
“Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid,” muses Julia. “Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theatre or the fire escape in the hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn't as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.”
There are similarly insightful, psychologically astute meditations throughout the narrative, written in the precise, elegant prose we've come to expect from this master storyteller - Messud’s last novel in particular, 'The Woman Upstairs', was a feisty, furious tour de force - the only problem with them in this particular context is they're a tad too perceptive for a 16-year-old narrator, still steeped in the confusions of youth.
This, for example, is surely the wisdom of age speaking: “Some things happen fast, like a car accident or a heart attack; other things happen slowly, like the disintegration of a friendship or a marriage, or like cancer, and you don't even know they're happening, really, until the crisis comes, by which time it's too late.”
Yet despite the fact this aspect of Julia's character doesn't quite convince, Messud’s portrayal of the intensity of a youthful female friendship - the passion that mimics that of later love affairs, the sense of completeness that can be found in a female pairing, “conjoined” as if Siamese twins, “sisters under the skin” - is as convincing as it comes; forcefully so, in fact, for any reader with similar memoirs of their own.
In this, 'The Burning Girl' is reminiscent of 'My Brilliant Friend', the first volume of the Elena Ferrante’s famous Neapolitan quartet, which deals with the childhood friendship between Elena and Lila - the former, like Julia, introspective and obsessed with her friend; the latter as wild and lost as Cassie, the one to whom all in her orbit are magnetically drawn.
Although 'The Burning Girl' isn't quite as incendiary a story as its title suggests, it's nevertheless a novel of deep emotional intelligence.