Published: 2nd February 2021
Genre: General Fiction
Trigger warnings: Child abuse/cruelty, sexual content
Alexandra Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped, the eldest sister who freed her older brother and four younger siblings.
It’s been easy enough to avoid her parents – her father never made it out of the House of Horrors he created, and her mother spent the rest of her life behind bars. But when her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer.
Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her siblings – and with the childhood they shared.
This is a book that contains an entirely unique narrative and has occasional flashes of brilliance scattered among its pages, yet for the most part is a major disappointment. Riddled with confusing and constantly changing timelines, it proves both disjointed and difficult to follow, even in spite of a chilling atmosphere and an enticing concept.
To describe this as a thriller would be inaccurate, as it slides along at a pedestrian pace and although there are many unsettling moments, it never reaches edge-of-the-seat territory because of the way the story is told. The writing is highly polished and there are little glimpses over the piece that create genuine intrigue, but that feeling never lasts for long enough for it to grab your undivided attention.
Alexandra Gracie is Girl A, the oldest sister in a family of six children who lived in squalor at what was dubbed by the media as the House of Horrors, suffering years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their father. It was she who escaped and alerted the authorities fifteen years ago, and afterwards she and her surviving siblings were all adopted by separate families.
Now, Alexandra has received the news that her mother – who she refused to speak to again in the years following her escape – has died in prison and left the house to her children. Unable to escape her past any longer, Alexandra and her sister Evie begin to track down their other siblings in their attempts to repurpose the house to turn it into a force for good.
The plot had the makings of something good, but sadly the incessant and unannounced switching of timelines that takes place on almost every page was not only frustrating, but made for a really discomfiting reading experience. There was so little fluidity to the story, with snatches of detail about one aspect of the plot then followed by those of another, so it was all just extremely difficult to follow.
Of all the different strands, the flashbacks to Alexandra’s horrific childhood were by far the most interesting parts of the story, and thankfully this is not done in a gratuitous way, instead focusing on how she struggled to sustain friendships and tried unsuccessfully to hide her dysfunctional state. The events in the present day on the other hand, struggled to make much of an impression on me at any time, with the standout exception of the revelation about Evie.
The book is split into seven parts that are each named after one of the siblings, but in actual fact the whole thing is narrated by Alexandra. She is compelling in some ways, understandably damaged by what she experienced as a child and very single-minded. Then again, the detached manner in which she is written made her hard to fully connect with in the more recent timelines.
One thing that was noticeable is how strikingly different the siblings are from each other despite their shared trauma – indeed you can even sense a hint of resentment when Alexandra refers to the likes of Ethan and Delilah. The section where Alexandra tracks down Noah is quite poignant, while the bond between her and Evie is rather tangible.
Even so, the supporting characters were not very well developed. Alexandra’s father is clearly evil but other a few specific incidents we get surprisingly few insights into his motives, and none of the remaining siblings apart from perhaps Delilah are particularly memorable. Then we have names such as Olivia and JP who are a mentioned frequently during the story but add nothing of any significance.
Although the house itself is not described in any great detail, the atmosphere is there in abundance as unsettling events from Alexandra’s past are relayed with a prevailing gloom. That is perhaps one of the most impressive aspects; how the author captures this tone and makes it a constant presence which hangs over everything like a haunting soundtrack.
The most distinctive element of this book is arguably the writing. It is extremely formal and also quite clinical, somewhat devoid of emotion. This in a way is counter-productive, as while it is an effective way of telling the story and evoking Alexandra’s perspective, it is not engaging in the slightest. As a result, I did not connect with it a huge amount.
Overall, there is definitely a lot to appreciate in what the author set out to do with this book, but it was ultimately too fragmented. Save for a few moments of inspiration and the backdrop of what the Gracie siblings endured in their childhood, there was little for the reader to truly latch on to and the repeated timeline changes were off-putting, so for me it did not live up to the hype.
Born in Manchester, Abigail Dean grew up in the Peak District and completed a degree in English Literature at Cambridge University. She then went on to become a bookseller at Waterstones, before turning her hand to being a lawyer.
She took time off to write Girl A, which is her debut novel. It has proven a bestseller in the UK and is in line to be adapted for television. Dean now works as a lawyer for Google.
I can certainly see the strengths of Girl A and the reasons why it has received a lot of acclaim. It is a powerful piece of work, but that does not mean to say I enjoyed reading it, as the shifting timelines made it all the more difficult to connect with.
My rating: ⭐⭐