Girl A, by Abigail Dean

Trigger warning for child abuse, including starvation.

I was brought up in a vaguely Christian household (Lutheran, not Evangelical). I was taught about the virtues of forgiveness, although I don’t recall a whole lot about repentance or atonement. Christianity—except where adapted for the twelve step program—always seemed to put more weight on forgiving the trespassers instead of encouraging the trespassers to apologize and make amends. I thought about this a lot as I read Abigail Dean’s challenging novel, Girl A. The “girl” of the title, now a grown woman, is confronted with people on one side telling her she should forgive and the other telling her that what her parents did was unforgivable. Are there unforgivable acts? Can someone who never expresses regret, let alone never atones, be forgiven? Can forgiveness heal?

Alexandra is one of five surviving siblings who were so abused by their father that it made national news in the United Kingdom. The news gave the children pseudonyms, but they only have to reference their address to clue people in to their identities. Alexandra makes a living as a corporate lawyer. She gets to travel around the world, seeing places she dreamed of visiting with her younger sister while they were locked in their rooms. She’s never forgotten—or forgiven—anything that happened to her, but she tries very hard not to think about it. We meet Alexandra on a day when she’s struggling to maintain her composure. Her mother (who was in prison) has died. The mother’s will names Alexandra as executor. Alexandra and her siblings now have to decide what to do about what the media called the House of Horrors. Everyone she meets at the prison tells her that she should forgive her mother. It’s been years, they tell her. Her mother is a nice lady, they tell her. Alexandra shuts them all down. She then tells them that she and her siblings will not claim the body. Alexandra tells them to cremate her mother’s body.

Over the course of Girl A, Alexandra visits each of her siblings to get their agreement on her plan to turn the House of Horrors into a community center. We also see the downward progression of her family life as her father goes from bad to holy terror. He was always controlling and willing to use his hands, but failure after failure at everything he touches turns him into a monster who uses scraps of religion to give himself a veneer of respectability. The narrative shows us the cause and the effects, over and over again. I was left wondering if Alexandra and her siblings would ever be able to find happiness, let alone forgive their parents for their treatment. But, like Alexandra and her siblings, I wondered if there are some things that can’t be forgiven.

Girl A isn’t for everyone. In fact, there are some readers I would steer away from Girl A. But I would recommend it to readers who are interested in questions about forgiveness and atonement, psychology, and healing. This book was an incredible read. Even though the content was hard to read and I was worried for the siblings even though I knew who was able to escape the House of Horrors, Girl A was beautifully structured to tell a far-reaching story about the long aftermath of abuse.

3 Comments

    1. I didn’t find it all that graphic, but I realize that my definition of graphic is somewhat warped by all the true crime podcasts I listen to. Characters are hit, but not beaten. There isn’t any sexual abuse. The worst of it is that the children are confined to their beds and starved for long periods. Not all of the main character’s siblings survive the neglect they are subject to. The main character’s point of view is more reflective and general than in the moment and experiential, if that makes sense. Like, she’ll think back on things that happened but you’re never in her head when she is in physical pain.

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