Girl A by Abigail Dean is an exquisitely crafted literary thriller and is one of the finest books I have read in a while. It is an agonizing tale of sustained abuse suffered in childhood, but the author chooses not to dwell compulsively on most of it. Instead she takes us through the nightmare that continues to cast long shadows on the lives of victims and their desperate struggle to flee the monsters that continue to stalk them from their memories of a traumarized childhood. Though, I like to think of myself as hardboiled, I wept at various points in the narrative. Small wonder this debut novel has taken the literary world by storm!
Sharing the unedited version of my interview with Abigail Dean:
1. Lex Gracie is a fascinating character – resilient, intelligent and remarkably strong. It was an interesting creative choice you made not to focus on the gruesome particulars of what went down in that ‘house of horrors’ but on the far reaching effects of abuse and its prolonged impact on the psyche of victims, even one, such as Lex who seems to have made it, given how gritty she is. What prompted this decision? I’m very interested in true crime, but one of the questions I’ve always wondered is: what happens next? There is often a lot of media attention on a particular case or crime, to the extent that certain photographs or buildings acquire an odd infamy. But for the people actually affected by those events, there are so many months and years and decades after: how do people live then? In Girl A, I wanted to explore that quieter time, which is so often hidden from the public view.
2. The dynamics between the siblings seems to be complicated particularly the relationships between Lex – Ethan and Lex – Delilah. It intrigued me that Lex seemed more willing to forgive Ethan and his dubious decisions prior to and in the aftermath of their ordeal than her mum. Do walk us through the process you followed to peel back the layers of their collective psyches to reveal the raw and still bleeding wounds within. Creating the different dynamics between the Gracie siblings was one of the best things about writing Girl A. They may have grown up in difficult, traumatic circumstances, but they share the same alliances, rivalries and barbs as any other siblings. Lex loves her older brother, Ethan, despite questions about his complicity in their parents’ abuse. As the oldest of the siblings, they bonded as children over books, over their love of school – and it’s that old allegiance that makes Lex stick by Ethan, despite the fact that he’s become a very questionable adult.
3. There was hope permeating the book, even in the aftermath of gut – wrenching grief, trauma and loss. Do we dare to remain positive despite being confronted with evidence of unspeakable evil and human capacity for inflicting harm no matter the number of restraints placed to prevent it? Lex is such a strong, resilient character. She’s the heart of Girl A, and her perspective – wry, humorous, cynical – really does fill the book with hope. As a reader, I usually find that it’s the scenes of human connections, even in the darkest circumstances, that move me the most.
4. Girl A was refreshingly non – judgmental on many levels seeming to point towards circumstances brought on by factors like grinding poverty and unholy influences (that creepy Jolly!) as the perpetrators of monstrous cruelty. But to what extent do you think individual folly and broken systems are responsible for societal evils leaving aside variables beyond our control and what can we do to prevent others from suffering the fate of the Gracie siblings? I’m glad that you found Girl A non-judgmental. It’s crucial, for me, to have characters who feel like real people, and real human beings are rarely simply good or evil. I don’t have sympathy for every character in Girl A, but I try to have some understanding for each of them, however misguided their actions become. There are many moments in Girl A where the community is complicit in ignoring the children’s suffering – where people try to step in, but fail to do enough - but that’s not intended to be judgmental, either. I don’t have the confidence to assume I would act differently. It was one of the things I found most uncomfortable, writing the book, and I think it’s a question for each reader to ask themselves.
5. You have mentioned drawing inspiration from true – crime stories like Fred and Rosemary West, Jasmine Block and the notorious Turpins. How did you go about researching these cases as well as the experience of severe trauma brought on by prolonged captivity and sustained abuse? I was aware of a number of cases through my interest in true crime, so the focus of my research was psychology, rather than real-life events. Each of Lex’s siblings has a very different reaction to their childhood, and I read into what those reactions might be. They range from Delilah’s suggestions of Stockholm syndrome to Gabriel’s uncontrollable rages, which pursue him into adulthood. That said, I also want there to be ambiguity in Girl A: how much of each character’s reaction can be attributed to what happened to them, and how much is simply who they are?
6. Girl A has been welcomed with thunderous applause and record sales, deservedly so. The screen rights have been sold to Sony. How is the view up there in that stratospheric sphere of elusive success? Just as surreal as it looks, I think! As a writer, you spend so long working in isolation, obsessed with the characters and the story. The most amazing thing, for me, is that my characters are out in the world, there for people to love and detest and challenge – as I’ve done with so many books myself. I’ve received a few messages expressing particular contempt for Jolly and JP, and knowing that you’ve sparked those kinds of feelings in readers is the absolute best.
7. Do share a glimpse into the next book you are working on. It is eagerly awaited… My second novel follows two characters in the aftermath of an attack: one loses her mother in the atrocity, and the other believes that the whole thing was a hoax, and sets out to disprove it. Like Girl A, it deals with themes of trauma behind the headlines, and with the different perspectives of different characters, just as the Gracie siblings each remember their childhood in a slightly different way.