Book Review: Girl A by Abigail Dean
By Gabino IglesiasFebruary 4, 2021
There’s something about dark narratives about dysfunctional families that pulls readers in. It probably stems from a sense of empathy mixed with familiarity. However, some stories take dysfunction into places so dark and dangerous that readers aren’t pulled in; they’re brutally dragged. Abigail Dean’s Girl A belongs to this second group. A crushing tale that delves into the horrors of a devastating past and explores its impact on the present, this novel explores the very unique and complicated world of siblings coping with shared trauma.
Lex Gracie was lucky enough to escape a horrible childhood, so she doesn’t like thinking about her family. Instead of a regular life growing up, Lex and her five siblings grew up as prisoners of two sadistic parents who kept them locked in and under awful conditions. They were hungry and cold. In fact, she was cold so often that her body started growing hair to keep her warm. Lex, known as Girl A, managed to escape and saved her siblings in the process, but none of them really escaped the damage done by those years of abuse and deprivation. Lex’s father stayed in the horrible house, but her mother spent the rest of her life in prison. When the mother dies, Lex and her siblings get the house as inheritance. Together with her sister Evie, Lex wants to turn the evil house into a force of good, a space for children and art. However, before that happens, the siblings will have to get through the scars they carry and learn to cope with their past, their differences, the secrets they keep from each other, and their shifting alliances.
Girl A is a brutal look at a family whose history is as inescapable as it is horrible. The siblings wants to move forward, but having the house and Lex’s desire to do something with it will stir up memories that hurt, dark things that reach out form the past to affect who those kids grew up to be. Dean’s prose is stylish, but she pulls no punches and every time the narrative goes back in time, she ensures the horrifying atmosphere of the kids’ lives is seen on the page.
This novel inhabits two different times. The first is the present, when Lex is forced to deal with the realities of being names her mother’s executor after her death in prison. She’s an adult woman who has done her best to move forward, but the scars of her childhood are still visible in her thoughts and demeanor, especially in the way she remembers her mother. Whenever the narrative is in this contemporary space, the prose is tense and dialogue carries a lot of the action, but it clear that the past is always present in some way. However, when the narrative inhabits the past—which makes it the present—the fear, isolation, and confusion are almost palpable. Lex is forced to deal with a horrendous reality in which everyday occurrences and minor problems are exacerbated by her situation. When this happens, Dean’s sharp, first person prose gets to the core of things unflinchingly, and that makes many passages memorable:
“My period posed a more significant problem. It came when I was ten; I had expected another few years to prepare myself. We had been informed, by a video in school, of the practicalities: the blood, the cramping, the sanitary products. It had seemed sterile and simple. Now I stood in the bath, half-naked and baffled. Nobody had mentioned the smell, or the clots, or what you were meant to do with one shower a week. I tried to reassure myself, in the same stern tone taken by the actress in the school video. It was a problem, and like any other, it would have a solution. For the time being, I lined my knickers with toilet paper and prayed. I was unconvinced about God’s credentials in this particular sector. I would need a better plan.”
There are places where descriptions of places or Lex’s thoughts slightly bog down the narrative, but the strength of the writing makes even those slower moments enjoyable. Girl A is extremely bleak, but its bleakness never becomes overpowering and the story is gripping, so the pages keep flying even when things get extremely dark. This great debut announces the arrival of a strong new voice in psychological thrillers that’s not afraid to go into the shadowy corners where bad things happen…and their memories remain.