The trendy use of the word “girl” in the title, the ominous photo on the dust jacket, the drastic shifts in fictive time, the brutal cult at the center of the story–all these hallmarks signal a psychological suspense novel on the order of LONG BRIGHT RIVER or WE ARE ALL ALONE IN THE DARK. Instead, this harrowing and beautifully written narrative is about the cost of surviving devastating trauma.
Thanks to the aforementioned time shifts, we get the basics of the plot in the first few pages: seven siblings, a father slipping ever further into religious derangement, an acquiescent mother, the “House of Horrors” in which they lived. When the oldest daughter escapes and the crime scene is revealed, authorities make a half-hearted attempt to control the media frenzy by assigning the children code names in order of age: Girl A, B, and C; Boys A-D.
Girl A, once called Lex, is the first-person narrator, and after sketching the broad outlines of the story, she spends the rest of the novel coloring inside those lines. If suspense had been Dean’s goal, telling the events in chronological order would have done the trick. Instead she seems intent on more elusive psychological game.
Each of the seven children had a unique experience of captivity, and each was damaged in a different way. Dean shows us how each can perform competence and normalcy while hiding essential brokenness. It’s the mere glimpses we get of that brokenness that suggest its unimaginable depths.
This is an extraordinarily accomplished and intelligent first novel, and I’m eager to see where Dean goes from here.