When touted as the thriller of the year, it pays to feature the word “girl” in the title. Think of recent crime fiction blockbusters like Gone Girl and Girl on the Train; book club staples-turned-cinema blockbusters.
Girl A, the debut novel by London lawyer Abigail Dean, is more subtle and devastating than those. There is no sinister murder mystery at its core. We learn a lot in the opening pages. The reliable protagonist Girl A is lawyer Alexandra “Lex” Gracie, awarded the anonymous moniker by virtue of being the eldest daughter in a family house of horrors.
At 15, Lex escapes the family home where she was held captive, assaulted and neglected by her aspiring preacher father. Her actions result in her father’s death, her mother’s imprisonment, and the release of several other siblings into separate new homes, with varying degrees of success. When her mother dies in jail, Lex is summoned to be the executor of the estate and must track down and discover what became of her brothers and sisters.
Dean draws on real-life cases — including American parents David and Louise Turpin who were jailed for life after they tortured their 13 children, including chaining them to their beds. This authenticity means the flashback scenes in Girl A can be sometimes sickening to read. On occasion, there is a jerkiness to the writing, as the paragraphs dart between the past and the present, a sudden tense change the only warning that we have returned to the childhood nightmare.
Some of the most powerful threads of this story lurk in the edges of the scene: Lex’s bond with her sister Evie, the love of her adopted parents, the subsequent public adulation her psychologist enjoys for “curing” her. This subtle undertow pulls us towards an unexpectedly stirring ending.