Girl A started with the sisters. They were often there, either in short stories or just in my head. They loved one another, desperately. The older ferociously protected the younger. Ferocity of a dog, or a mother.
It wasn’t surprising, that they were sisters. When I was a child, I had a series of small obsessions. This videogame, that novel. I would pick songs for the different characters. I would write offshoots of the story, before I knew what fan-fiction really was. Siblings were often a focus of these fixations, because I didn’t have any of my own. I peered through the windows of fiction, wondering what it would be like to share your childhood: your bedtimes, and your family secrets, and all of your parents’ annoying habits, which were too embarrassing to disclose to your friends.
Characters aren’t ghosts, of course. There is little external about them. But that’s what they felt like, the sisters. I thought about them before bed. I remembered them during songs or watching television, on the beat of a relevant line. They followed me home from work.
At the end of winter, in 2018, I was tired to the bones. It was the kind of tiredness that a week’s holiday doesn’t shift, a tiredness that made everything sharp and close and impossible. I had been working long hours for six years, and they were hours I wasn’t cut out for. I scrambled for time to write on quiet weekends, or else late in the evenings. But fewer and fewer weekends were quiet. In the evenings, I sat in the taxis home, watching the familiar buildings down the river, with an empty Note open on my phone.
“There are other jobs,” my partner said. “Jobs where you’d be able to write, too.”
“It’s pointless, anyway,” I said. “I mean, come on. I’m not going to be a writer.”
My partner has a pragmatism that is both kind and ruthless. There is empathy, but no wallowing. “Well, you’re not going to be a writer,” he said, “if you don’t write anything.”
Around the same time, I went for dinner with a former colleague, who had abandoned the hours of the City for work at a technology company, which he loved. He called me the week after, while I was walking on Peckham Rye. It was the first warm morning of March, the kind of morning that makes winter worth it. A glorious cliche. They were recruiting. I made a deal with myself. If I was going to quit my job to write, I needed another job at the end of it. I needed an idea. And I needed to have made a start.
I wrote the first few thousand words, and in July, I left my job. I wasn’t set to start a new one until September. For three months, I would turn up. That was another part of the deal.
I have always spent a lot of time reading about true crime. Around this time, a Minnesotan teenager had escaped from a month of imprisonment, swimming across a lake to escape her captors. The Turpin case had come to light in California, where a 14 year-old had broken from her family home to expose the abuse of her and her siblings. The Gracie family began to expand, to take shape. I revisited old podcasts, older books, addressing the media clamour around the West family: the original House of Horrors. A detective character, who had been the subject of a few late night sketches and stories, came into the fray.
Initially, I thought each of the children in the Gracie family would narrate a section of the novel. But once I started writing, there was only Girl A: Lex, the older sister, who had been there since the beginning. Her voice became a constant fixture, emerging in my head in the mornings, or in the shower, or walking to the station.
A new obsession.
I didn’t set out with much of an idea of how Girl A (which wasn’t Girl A, at the time; not until long after it was submitted to agents) would turn out. I didn’t decide to write a thriller, or something literary, or something that a bookclub might want to discuss. I mostly set out to write something, acknowledging that it was likely to be similar, in some ways, to the contemporary fiction I love.
I spent the months in Dulwich Library. It was one of the hottest summers on record. I stuck to the plastic seats, and ate lunch in the garden shade, swatting at wasps. In the afternoons, school students filed in, flirted across the tables, pretended to work.
I had thought that I would have a first draft by September, but instead I had half of one. I was at the hump, but I knew, now, how it would end.
For eight more months, I worked on the manuscript. If we were in a film, this would be the tedious part, summarized by montage. There were Saturdays when I started writing at 6pm; when I had spent nine hours doing anything – shopping for light bulbs, doing delicates laundry; anything – not to write. There were weeks when the manuscript seemed comically bad; when each sentence felt like a small, irreparable embarrassment. I gave parts of the novel to my parents, who are retired English teachers, and begged them not to mark it. I gave parts of the novel to a friend and to my partner. I would like to say that I wanted an honest critique, but I also wanted cheerleaders. I wanted people invested enough to encourage me to keep going.
“It’s really frustrating,” my mum said, “how it just stops, at the end of the chapter. Without having another one to read.”
“Tell me about it, Mum.”
In May, the book was finished. My small band of readers had liked it enough to encourage me to send it to agents. Well. What was the worst that could happen? “If they don’t like it,” my partner said, “we can always try to self-publish it. I think people’ll want to read it.”
I prepared a summary and a covering letter. This was business, clean and familiar. In the formality of emails, in word count and pitch, the sisters were dimming. They no longer belonged to me, if they ever had done in the first place.
One of my only regrets is that I didn’t celebrate finishing the novel.
“You didn’t even write ‘The End’?” my partner asked.
“No. I don’t think I did.”
“Isn’t that the best part?”
Maybe. In all of the wondrous moments that came after – and they really were wondrous – nothing has been quite as satisfying as a rare, good day of writing, and the pleasure of reading it back the next.
(c) Abigail Dean
About Girl A:
‘Girl A,’ she said. ‘The girl who escaped. If anyone was going to make it, it was going to be you.’
Lex 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. 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 six siblings – and with the childhood they shared.
Beautifully written and incredibly powerful, Girl A is a story of redemption, of horror, and of love.
‘The biggest mystery thriller since Gone Girl’ ELLE
‘Incendiary, beautifully written debut’ Guardian
‘Psychologically astute, adroitly organised, written with flair’ Sunday Times
‘An astonishing achievement.’ JESSIE BURTON
‘Gripping, beautifully written perfection.’ SOPHIE HANNAH
‘A masterpiece.’ LOUISE O’NEILL
‘Fantastic.’ PAULA HAWKINS
Order your copy online here.