Girl A by Abigail Dean

Book review: ‘Girl A’ by Abigail Dean – a transfixing story of rebuilding a life after horror ★★★★½

I almost stopped reading this book a few pages in. But I’m glad I didn’t.

I was worried, at the start, that this would be a ‘trauma-porn’ kind of read – a litany of horrors, a will-they won’t-they escape their captors. And whilst the horror is there – spoken and unspoken – this book is so much more about how to rebuild a life after enduring such cruelty and suffering, and about the myriad and complex ways it affects each of the Gracie siblings who made it out alive from the ‘house of horrors.’

Lex, the titular ‘Girl A’ who manages to escape the house at fifteen years old, is our first-person narrator. Abigail Dean resists giving her ‘plucky heroine’ status, or making her broken beyond repair. Instead, she’s a complex, empathetic and unreliable narrator. Her siblings were all split up and adopted by different families, and 15 years on are varying degrees of well-adjusted. The sibling dynamics were portrayed in a fascinating way: rather than necessarily being bonded by such a uniquely horrifying trauma, there is guilt, fear, incomprehension.

‘When I looked at my siblings, frailer around the table, it seemed as though they’d taken a little flesh from each of us and made something new.’

This isn’t a fast-paced read – we’re constantly drawn back, the present-day narration never gathering too much momentum until we’re pulled back to a slowly unravelling past. We learn how the children slid from a relatively normal existence – if moderately poor and unloving – to a hellscape of being chained to their beds, deprived of food to almost starvation and routinely abused by their maniacal father, supposedly compelled by the word of God. Thankfully, Dean spares us most of the graphic details, but the oppressive atmosphere of dread is unbearable – and hard to look away from.

‘The poverty crept into our lives like ivy on a window, slow enough that you don’t notice it moving, and then, in no time, so dense that we couldn’t see outside.’

We know that the horrors end – which is what makes reading these flashbacks slightly more bearable; these children escaped, grew older, began life on their own terms. Except the fate that awaits each of the children is complicated.

In one particular anecdote that gave me chills, Lex has made it to university – several years older than her peers, on account of her catch-up schooling. They’re out one night at a Halloween party, and she sees a bunch of fellow students dressed up as nightmare-material IRL criminals – Ted Bundy, Myra Hindley, Ian Brady – and her very own parents. The sight of it is enough to make her almost lose consciousness in horror.

In the present day, Lex has been named executor of her mother’s will, her having died in prison. The Gracie children have inherited the house where they were imprisoned, and through the course of the novel Lex grapples with this inheritance and what to do with it. A physical manifestation of all they endured, its presence looms large within the story, the squalor and misery of those four walls terrifyingly vivid.

It’s a transfixing read, the characters so intricately rendered and the prose so expressive and gut-wrenching. Don’t go into this expecting an edge-of-your-seat thriller – but if you’ll sit with the characters a while, you’ll likely be just as drawn in as I was. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.

Massive TW/CW for child abuse, substance use.

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