By the time Girl A, Abigail Dean’s debut novel, begins, the crime motivating its plot has already been solved. Alexandria Gracie has escaped her parents, who have been shot dead after keeping Lex and her siblings in abusive captivity. But Girl A is not a book about the act that triggered trauma, it is a study of the aftermath, carried out with a meticulous eye for the needs of its survivors. Our narrator, Lex, has no time for an audience’s emotions in the relation of her story. Her delivery of memories concerning the abuse is deliberately flat, often unsettling for its frankness, and utterly heartbreaking. For Lex, the relation of traumatic acts is simply reality. Girl A stands alongside books like Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild, or Kate Millet’s The Basement for its unflinching depictions of trauma. There is no respite for readers in these pages. This is not a fairytale where the victims find healing in the power of love. Like its fellows, Girl A keeps Lex’s story deliberately rooted in the real. The real question of this novel is not what was done to these characters, but how they manage to live afterwards.
Each chapter is dedicated to one of the siblings, named in turn, starkly drawn by Lex’s observations, about their relationships, betrayals, guilt. After their escape, each sibling is put in a different adoptive home, their various fates weighted by the question of luck. They have all survived, but to what extent? At what cost? Noah, the baby, gets to grow up unaware of his past. Ethan, the eldest, capitalizes on his family’s trauma, writing articles about forgiveness. Gabriel is “troubled,” and Delilah curiously shows no outward signs of lingering trauma. Lex, the titular “Girl A” who was the first to escape, still has memories of her flight like “half remembered dreams” that wake her in the night.
The structure of the book’s short chapters moves back and forth through time, often uninterested in progressing plot, guided, instead, by Lex’s troubled attempts at relating her experiences. It is sometimes frustrating, but this feels deliberate, too, as another aspect of Lex on the page. As children, Lex and her siblings had watched their parents cover the clocks and windows of the house, a disorienting abuse technique that leaves her grasp on time shaky into adulthood. She often has trouble gauging the passage of time, or loses time completely, a common experience of trauma survivors, and that uneasy grasp of time is reflected in the seesawing structure until its sudden catapulting of tension halfway through the narrative.
Still, for all its darkness, there is tenderness, small moments of happiness between Lex and her adoptive father are welcome spots of light in these pages, but they do not “fix” her. That was, for me, the most startling element of this book. I found myself waiting with each chapter and turn for Lex’s pain to be made palatable, digestible for a general audience unused to the burden of trauma, but Dean’s writing holds no quarter for such things. She looks at a child tied to a bed, deprived of food, and she honors the very real consequences of those acts.
When Lex escaped, she ran through the quiet streets around her house, screaming, “trying to summon [neighbors] from their living rooms, from their sofas, from the evening news,” desperate to be seen. This book, too, tries to rouse its readers, begging us not to look away. Even when it’s painful. Girl A is by no means a light read. It is emotionally taxing, it is difficult, and it is devastatingly beautiful.
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2021
Reviewed by Dan Mazzacane