By the opening chapter, the crime’s perpetrators, Lex’s father and mother, are, respectively, shot dead in a kitchen and about to be buried in an unmarked prison grave. Their children have wildly different fortunes. Each chapter is named for one of them, a canny structure that gradually moves the spotlight of Lex’s attention across her family. The siblings are sharply drawn and distinct, their ties weighted with rivalry, guilt and betrayal, the novel operating partly as a meditation on the vagaries of birth order.
After their escape, the siblings are placed in different adoptive homes, where they receive varying levels of love and support. The luckiest must be Noah, the baby, raised by affectionate parents with no memory of his past. The position of unluckiest is hotly contested. Perhaps it is Ethan, the eldest, who capitalizes on his family’s notoriety, writing a newspaper article on “The Problems With Forgiveness,” which, Lex observes, “were many and predictable.” Or perhaps the least fortunate is Gabriel, the “troubled” one, or Delilah, who seems suspiciously healed, having “surpassed Survivorhood and reached Transcendence.”
Or is the unluckiest Lex herself, Girl A, the one who escaped?
Now a lawyer based in New York, Lex is good at her job, has friends and lovers, can afford spritzes and weddings abroad, but also seems utterly exhausted by the effort of resilience. As a narrator, Lex never tries to win over her audience, or to present herself as plucky or heroic. Her tone is controlled and understated; the flatness is effective but highly unsettling.
Early on in their captivity, the children watch their parents cover the windows and remove the clocks from the house, “old disorientation techniques.” Lex finds that her sense of time remains unstable. As short chapters swing between the past and present, you long for more forward movement — for the heavy weather to break. But that frustration seems deliberate on Dean’s part, mirroring Lex’s own rage to escape her past. And the suppressed tension acts like the winding back of a slingshot, which about halfway through the novel suddenly rockets forward, propelling the story through scenes of genuine fear to its moving, pitch-perfect ending.
I kept wanting to read “Girl A” as a fairy tale or parable, to cauterize some of the suffering in its pages, but Dean resists that impulse at every turn, always rooting Lex’s story in the real. Dean looks squarely at the sort of parents who humiliate their children, or hit them, or deny them food, and the consequences of such monstrousness. In one heartbreaking scene, Lex recalls how during her first holiday in her adoptive home, she “ate Christmas,” waking in the night and stealing down to the dark kitchen to devour the cheeseboard, the gingerbread men, the fruitcake. Faced with the crumbs, her adoptive mother loses her patience. As in life, even the heroes in this novel have their breaking points.