Abigail Dean’s Girl A is tipped to be one of the biggest debut novels of the year, with screen rights already sold. It centres on the aftermath of a hideous “House of Horrors”-style crime — and as the UK author explains here, it examines what happens once the headlines move on.
You know them, right? The children. They appear as gender, age, or else they’re defined by pseudonyms. Something terrible happened to them, that much is known. The details depend on where you look. On the television, you get precise, technical language. Language your stomach can take, in the middle of a TV dinner. Language that doesn’t prick the ears of your children, on the way out to school. On the internet, you might get the details, fleshed out by strangers’ imaginations. Depending on the newspaper, you might get a neighbour’s insight. Depending on the newspaper, you might get a photograph.
It must be so strange, to be known for something that happened to you. Your life, beginning in the passive voice. When I first started to write Girl A, this is what I was thinking about. The childhood of the Gracie children, the family at the heart of the novel, is dominated by their parents’ abuse. But what about all of the time that follows it? When the headlines are long-recycled — in those quieter months, which turn into years — how do the victims live then?
The short answer, of course, is that we don’t know. It’s where some of the fixation on the children subjected to terrible crimes comes from. We are embroiled in the events, from the first grainy revelations to the trial, only for the story to be cut short. Just when we were getting to the hopeful part.
Girl A begins with Lex Gracie’s escape from her parents’ religious cult, and the House of Horrors where she grew up. The scene was inspired by two notable true crimes: the escape of a 14-year-old girl in the case of the Turpin family’s imprisonment of their children, and the escape of a Minnesotan teenager held captive for a month in 2017, who swam to safety across a lake. Reading these stories, I was in awe of the power of teenage girls. How could you not want to know what happened next?
It was one of the reasons I wanted Girl A to begin with an escape, and to take place in the years that follow it. To the frustration of her siblings, and prospective agents, and the press, Lex has no interest in heroism. If she saw me gush about the power of teenage girls, she would roll her eyes. Instead, she wants absolute anonymity, and the chance to forget her whole sorry childhood.
The ever-rising interest in true crime has made that harder. Lex’s younger brother, Gabriel, is manipulated by a foster family who want him to profit from his childhood. They encourage him to attend conventions and showcase relics from the House of Horrors: diaries, letters, materials. He is as vulnerable outside of his family home as within it, victim not to his parents but to other people’s fixation on his story.
I’m enthralled by true crime, as complicit as anybody. But when I think of the victims, I find that I’m often thinking about myself. Would I have made it? Would I have fought? Would I have taken the window, or the stairs?
One of the most inspiring, devastating TED talks is that delivered by Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped for nine months at the age of 14, back in 2002. She stands poised and calm on the TED stage, and narrates the advice her mother gave to her, when they were finally reunited: The best punishment you can ever give [your abuser] is to be happy. This is the version of survival that I would like to be true. I like to think that I would have this kind of grace — me, who struggles to forgive a slight in a supermarket queue.
I wonder if this is why we crave memorabilia, and podcasts, and the conclusion to the victims’ stories. If they survived, we could have done it, too. If they survived with grace, better still.
Writing about true crime, it’s difficult not to use the language of fiction. We have our stories, our endings, our heroes. We demand a satisfaction that the real victims, tasked with the business of living, can’t give us. Nor should they have to. We don’t know them, after all.
Girl A, by Abigail Dean, is published by HarperCollins Australia and is on sale now. As such a stunning debut it has to be our Book of the Month for February. Head to booktopia.com.au and enter code GIRLA at checkout to receive 30 per cent off the RRP of $29.99. And share your thriller tips at the Sunday Book Club group on Facebook.