The Eighth Girl, by Maxine Mei-Fung Chung

Trigger warning for sexual abuse, rape, and suicidal ideation.

Alexa Wú, the protagonist of Maxine Mei-Fung Chung’s The Eighth Girl, is one of the most damaged characters I’ve ever encountered. Abuse at the hands of her father caused her to develop dissociative identity disorder (a very rare and still controversial condition). Years later, Alexa tries to get ahead, for once in her life. She has prospects as a photographer and a plum job helping a photojournalist…but she just can’t say no when Ella, her best friend, draws Alexa into the world of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. This book is not an easy read. Not only does it contain a good half-dozen topics that warrant trigger warnings, but Alexa’s fractured mind means that she is a supremely unreliable narrator. We can never forget that everything Alexa says needs to be verified before you can trust it.

I almost gave up on The Eighth Girl in its first chapters. I found its initial approach to mental illness to be facile. (There were also far too many paragraphs of not always relevant backstory wedged into the main narrative in the first chapters.) Alexa is a veteran of years of therapy, which means that her appointments with the book’s other protagonist, Daniel Rosenbaum, are stilted. It isn’t until Alexa and Daniel start to trust each other (well, until a majority of Alexa’s alters start to trust Daniel) that the book starts to improve. These appointments anchor the book while Alexa and Ella get sucked into the awful world of the Electra Club and Daniel struggles with his sobriety. The ending is incredibly well written and, I think, more than makes up for the wobbly beginning.

The Eighth Girl has some very interesting things to say about honesty, the boundaries between patients and their therapists, and how very divided a person can be even within themselves. Not to make light of dissociative identity disorder, but I think all of us are familiar with the feeling of showing different parts of our personalities to the people we spent time with. There is also the fact that we sometimes lie to ourselves about parts of our personality that we don’t like or things we’ve done that we’re ashamed of to minimize negative feelings. Being a witness to Alexa and Daniel’s actions is interesting, but uncomfortable reading. There were many passages when I wanted to yell at Alexa’ because she makes so many terrible decisions. At other times, I wanted to smack Daniel upside the head because of his reluctance to challenge Alexa and intervene when she makes her worst decisions.

Unfortunately, for me, The Eighth Girl suffered in comparison to the excellent series The United States of Tara—where the protagonist with dissociative identity disorder is acted by the brilliant Toni Collette. The United States of Tara is leavened with humor and normalcy often enough that, when things do get dark, it feels like there’s something real at stake. The Eighth Girl goes to so many dark places, so often, that it gets overwhelming. It reads more like a train wreck than anything else. It’s not fair of me to compare Chung’s work to that of the team that wrote The United States of Tara. The problem is that the Diablo Cody series got into my head first; I can’t not compare other stories featuring dissociative identity disorder to Tara.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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