Girl A by Abigail Dean

Girl A, a dark literary thriller narrated by the survivor of a famous 'house of horrors' abuse case, is Abigail Dean's debut novel, and an impressive one it is too.

Lex Gracie is 'Girl A', one of seven siblings imprisoned and starved by their religious fundamentalist parents. Lex, the eldest girl in the family, was the child who managed to escape from the house at the age of 15 and beg for help. Now, as an adult and a high-flying corporate lawyer, she's returned to England from her home in New York upon the death, in prison, of her mother. Appointed executor of her mother's will, she discovers that she and her siblings have inherited the family home that was the scene of their worst suffering. Lex wants to donate the house and have it converted into a community centre for a good cause, and for that she needs to secure the agreement of her brothers and sisters. But the Gracie children were all adopted separately, and now lead very different lives. Are their memories the same as Lex's? What are their strategies for living with the irreversible traumas of their childhoods? And can Lex and Evie - the only sibling with which Lex has a close and affectionate bond - return to the scene of their childhood suffering without undoing years of painstaking psychotherapy?

You may recall that in 2019 in the United States, a married couple called David and Louise Turpin were charged with beating, starving and imprisoning their children in squalid conditions for many years, and that it was a 17-year-old girl who managed to escape from the house to raise the alarm. Like Charles and Deborah Gracie, the Turpins were Christian fundamentalists and it's abundantly clear that Girl A was at least in part inspired by their case - right down to a famous photograph of the family, dressed in matching outfits, which appears in the media. I can completely understand why the Turpin case would spark an author's imagination, but I think there are times when the parallels are a little too transparent, breaking the immersive spell which a book should cast over its reader.

However, for the most part Girl A is a compelling read, not least because it tries to answer one of the most pressing questions many of us have about cases like this: what happened to the children afterwards?

As Lex seeks out her siblings one by one, we see a number of different possibilities. Lex herself is, on the face of it, remarkably well-adjusted and successful, in part because of the love and stability provided by her adoptive parents and the dedication of her psychotherapist. Ethan, the oldest of the children, is successful in a different way, making money from lectures, articles and TV appearances in way that feels indefinably inappropriate. Lex is suspicious of him - she wonders why, as the oldest sibling, he didn't try to raise the alarm himself - but is she right to be? Delilah, estranged from Lex for several years, is prickly and resentful while Gabriel is so desperate to be loved that he's horribly vulnerable to exploitation. Only Evie, the sister with whom Lex was locked up and of whom Lex is fiercely protective, seems relatively well-adjusted.

Girl A alternates between the present day narrative of Lex's meetings with her siblings to agree the future of their former home, and flashbacks to her childhood. The steady escalation of the children's maltreatment at the hands of their parents is chillingly plausible, beginning with general low-level neglect and bullying and gradually building up to the children being withdraw from school, starved and confined to an increasingly squalid home. The more rigid their father becomes in his religious beliefs - he is ostensibly a Christian, but there's something much more cult-like about the church he establishes with a manipulative friend and in the last days of the children's home-schooling, he's starting to find the New Testament too moderate - the more he drinks and the more abusive and paranoid he becomes.

The novel doesn't offer us a straightforward explanation for the behaviour of either father or mother, which I think is a wise choice. In real life, we rarely get those answers, and even the worst abusers can be full of contradictions. Although Lex's father is the more overbearing of the two parents and likes to play the role of a biblical patriarch, it's actually the mother who interested me more. The story of the couple meeting suggests that Charles is difficult and narcissistic from the start, but what of Deborah? Is she mentally ill? Brainwashed? Afraid? Lex - not unreasonably - condemns her mother unequivocally, but some of her siblings are more forgiving.

Girl A is a convincing and immersive read. Lex - who is, after all, a highly educated and successful lawyer - is a self-assured narrator who relates her family's story with clarity and precision, but Abigail Dean is adept at hinting at the cracks that might be appearing in Lex's confident shell. 

There is one revelation in Girl A which I did see coming quite early on, but that certainly didn't diminish the novel's power. It's a remarkable and thoughtfully-written debut which successfully straddles the \boundary between psychological thriller and literary fiction.