Abigail Dean’s Girl A is set to be one of the biggest books of 2021, a prediction that can be concluded as completely well-deserved upon reading it.
The story is narrated by Lex Gracie, better known as the girl who escaped from the House of Horrors, a location of crime made infamous by headlines in the novel. Lex and her six siblings were victims of abuse, held hostage and starved, a fact made even more harrowing when the perpetrators are revealed to be their own parents. Now a lawyer in New York, she is faced with the death of her imprisoned mother and the house left behind in the UK, forcing her to reconnect with her siblings and come to terms with the childhood they shared. Through a carefully-crafted and weaving narrative, Lex tells the story of her escape, her suffering and the way such trauma and abuse is processed.
A key element of Girl A which makes it stand out amongst other books of similar content is Dean’s effort to avoid explicit reference to the abuse itself, a refreshing take which allowed more thoughtful reflection and at times, a more focused reading experience. In an interview with The Bookseller, Dean explained her interest in writing a book that ‘deals less with the intricate details of the terrible things that do happen, and more with how trauma is processed’.
This intention definitely came to fruition in the novel. Lex’s position as narrator allowed a reading journey reminiscent of any real crime story; outsiders can never possibly understand the experience of victimhood in its entirety. The narrator often felt cold and distant but also at times tender and intimate, marking a successful attempt by the author to demonstrate how trauma and recovery often manifests itself. This process reaches climatic heights in the novel’s powerful twist, both unexpected and completely brilliant.
Part of Dean’s inspiration for the book originates from a true crime story traced back to the Turpin family, California. The case saw a couple charged for imprisoning their children and subjecting them to a cascade of neglect and abuse, only discovered after the escape of their seventeen year-old daughter.
The links between Girl A and the Turpin case are stark, injecting Dean into a tradition of writers using true crime to inspire fiction, some notable examples also from the North of England include David Peace’s 1980 and Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down. Both of these authors took true crime stories and utilised them as inspiration for iconic literary fiction — Dean could well be on the path to joining them with her intensely compelling debut novel.
If Girl A could only be summarised by one word, that word should be hope. The author builds a story full of characters who feel alive, pulsing with real feelings and experiences. Their reactions, dialogue and personalities all contribute to an overwhelming achievement in terms of characterisation, something which is often missed out on when horrendous crimes are allowed to take centre stage. The relationships in the novel were particularly absorbing, especially when childhood rivalries and loving bonds were tested between the siblings. Hope is at the forefront, despite the memories of pain, and it is definitely a testament to the strength of victims everywhere who have experienced such abuse.
As far as debut novels go, this one is an absolute accomplishment. Combining true crime, trauma and proof of hope, Girl A is as memorable as it is captivating.
Abigail Dean is a lawyer and author, born in Manchester and raised in the Peak District. You can buy her novel now, available here.
Words: Beth Barker
Beth Barker is a writer and blogger from Blackpool, now working in Manchester. She also co-hosts Up North Books, a podcast celebrating books and writers from the North of England.
Beth wanted to contribute a monthly review to NRTH LASS in order to shine a light on Northern women writing great books. The North is very much underrepresented in publishing and she hopes a monthly review throughout 2021 will showcase the talent Northern women have to offer.
For more book reviews and insights on publishing in the North, follow Beth on Instagram and Twitter.