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Published on: 07/10/22 6:31 AM

Book review: Girl A by Abigail Dean

Many years after the trauma….

Every so often a book is declared a publishing sensation. Sometimes it  is a debut novel, sometimes it is a thriller and very often, it has `girl` in its title. Like Gone girl and The Girl on the Train. The book  then sells for huge sums after multi-way auctions, film rights are immediately lapped up. You, the reader, wonder if this is much ado about nothing. Maybe it’s the public relations machinery of the publisher working on overdrive?

Then you read the book, in this case Abigail Dean’s Girl A,  and you realise every word of the attendant hype is justified. It is indeed,  a superb, powerful piece of work.

Psychological thriller

Girl A  is a psychological thriller that chooses to walk a slightly different path from others in its genre. Here the what/ where/ how is secondary to the main concept: how does one live after a childhood of unspeakable trauma? What happens when the spotlight that is trained on such children in the immediate aftermath of such horror coming to light, is eventually turned off? What kind of adults do these damaged children become? Dean, Google lawyer-turned- writer, has said that these were her concerns when she read true crime stories that inspired her book.

Lex Gracie, or `Girl A`  as her psychiatrist and the Press refer to her, escapes from the house where she was shackled and bound. This brave act leads the police, Press and the public to what is immediately dubbed the `House of Horrors,` where Lex and her many siblings were imprisoned under  harrowing circumstances. The Gracie siblings are saved  and thereafter placed in foster homes. When the book begins, the adult Lex is forced to come back to the scene of the crime,  in the wake of her mother’s death in prison. She has been made executor of the latter`s will, and has plans for that terrible house but this entails her getting the other Gracie siblings onboard.

The story alternates between the present,  with its complicated dynamics between the Gracie siblings, and their  indelible past. Dean skilfully  intertwines the two to show how the invisible strings of a past of shared trauma impact  the present in ways both predictable and unpredictable. She  charts  the devastating circumstances of these  imperfect,  troubled adults`  past life which slowly but ominously deteriorates into darkness. As you see the siblings acting out in different ways, the contours of their terrible past become horrifyingly  clear.

Interestingly,  not all the siblings are  innocent victims. `Boy A`, Lex’s brother Ethan, behaves in a questionable and manipulative way. However, Dean’s delineation of the Gracie siblings is both compassionate and non-judgemental. She seems to say that the children may have been reduced by their circumstances to behaving in morally suspect ways, but it is just another way of surviving. The book  also implies that one can’t escape terrible childhood abuse unscathed; there will be scars, both invisible and visible.

Dean also casts a cynical eye on the attraction — which borders on the ghoulish–  that true crime stories have for the general public. As always,  there is also money to be made from somebody’s misery by unscrupulous hustlers; the Press is implicated for their penchant for `where are they now` stories regarding victims of true crime; privacy and individual rights are trampled in the quest for eyeballs.

A nuanced work

The book is written with understated  flair.  Amazingly, even though it deals with such a dark subject, it is never depressing. Dean’s eye for detail shows up all through the book. There is a telling  description of the clothes worn by Lex’s mother when she visits school which deftly reveals how far gone the woman  is, as well as the miserable condition of their lives. However,  in the present, there is hope, redemption and forgiveness of sorts which is what makes this book so  nuanced and emotionally complex.

In the hit American TV series Mindhunter,  a number of real-life serial killers reveal a childhood of abuse, seemingly a rot that starts in childhood and runs deep. And yet there are some victims, like the characters in this book, who don’t turn perpetrators themselves. They may be deeply troubled adults, they may be unable to completely break the shackles of the past, they may be using dubious mechanisms to cope. But all of them are trying to make a life for themselves, despite the rotten cards that they have been dealt.

Lex says about her brother who is struggling as an adult, `He is special. He survived.` That then, is the thought at the heart of this book: if you have survived unbearable horror in your childhood and are trying to get your life back on track,  you are special. A debut novel, a thriller with the proverbial twist,  which  also imparts life lessons. That too, is special.

Girl A by Abigail Dean. HarperCollins. Rs 399. 328 pages.

 This ran in the Sunday Herald of 10 July 2022.

Abigail Deanbook reviewbooksGirl Ahope and redemptionnuanced workPsychological thriller

Sheila Kumar • July 10, 2022

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