20 Feb 2021

Girl A author Abigail Dean

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 20 February 2021

Former bookseller Abigail Dean now works as a lawyer for Google. But last year she took some time off before turning 30 to write her debut novel.

Girl A is already being tipped as one of the books of the year and tells the story of Lex: a girl who escapes from monstrous parents.

It's being reported that the novel is being adapted into a TV show by Johan Renck, the director of the hit 2019 Sky/HBO mini-series Chernobyl.

Abigail Dean

Abigail Dean Photo: Twitter @abigailsdean

Dean tells Kim Hill she wrote about half of the first draft of the novel in a three-month period she took off from work.

“It’d been one of those things that had been on the agenda for many, many years by that point so I possibly spent a decade saying ‘maybe later’ before finally mustering the courage to give myself the time and give myself the chance to actually sit down and write.”

While she hadn’t been planning Girl A during that decade of procrastination, she was focussed on the idea of relationships between siblings.

“One of the defining relationships within Girl A is that between Lex and her younger sister Evie and I had this idea about sisters and their relationship for a very long time.”

In the book, Girl A escapes her parents when she’s aged 15 and rescues her sibling. Rather than focussing on the trauma of what happened, the story follows what happens when her and her sister are more grown up.

“I veered away from going into gratuitous detail about what happened within the house of horrors because I actually think there’s a lot more worth in thinking about how that’s affected the characters and in how they’ve prevailed from that.”

Dean says it was important to her to make every character feel human, for better or worse, including the abusive parents – particularly the father.

“I don’t think there’s much to believe in a depiction of pure evil, so I sort of see the father’s obsession with religion as, if it hadn’t been religion it would have been something else. I think he’s an incredibly obsessive man who’s vulnerable to excuses.

“Religion for him is more a cloak to his own flaws. He’s revelling in his own failures and allowing them to take him in a way that it could have been other things. There’s also a question of whether he’s a well man; to what extent does he suffer from his own mental illnesses and to alcoholism and that brings into questions of responsibilities and certain sympathies. Despite his despicable acts, he’s a human being and he himself has suffered in different ways.”

A question that crops up in the book is why Lex didn’t leave earlier when she had the chance, and she responds that things weren’t all bad. Dean says it’s a common thread in abuse cases.

“I think it’s a naïve question and presupposes that, if you were in that situation, you would have known the right thing to do and had the strength and the means to do it. That’s something that, for me putting myself in Lex’s shoes, and thinking about what the different siblings had gone through, I definitely don’t have the confidence to know that I would have known the moment when things were bad enough to leave, or that I would have had the bravery to do so.

“When Lex refers to it not being that bad, I think it’s a combination of things. It’s the fact that nothing like this ever happens immediately, there’s rarely a defining moment where it becomes clear that things are getting dangerous. That’s something Lex looks back to in the book, she obsesses about it herself and she can’t locate that point which was the point of no return.”

Another common experience in abusive family situations is that there is still love and good days.

“[Lex] is incredibly attached to her younger sister and she’d find it incredibly difficult to leave her and she has great respect for [her brother] Ethan and the books he brings to her and their discussions. I think it’s that very difficult line, which is really an invisible line, of when is it time to go, and I certainly don’t feel that’s ever as clear as questions like that would like to think.”

As for her next book, Dean is shifting the focus to conspiracy theories.

“The second novel deals with an attack that takes place and one character who directly loses their mother in the attack and another character who believes the whole thing was a hoax and sets out to try and disprove it.

“It’s been an incredibly strange novel to write over the last year or so and sometimes has felt a bit too close to home in terms of the number of conspiracy theories that have dominated this year and the ways the truth has been interpreted and, in some cases, twisted.”