Pre-meditated cruelty, the cruelty that oozes from a sense of power and entitlement, appears to be a uniquely human attribute.
This may be because cruelty demands a set of justifications. Even psychopaths know they have to at least pretend their actions are in service of something else. The corporation works well, but the Bible can come in handy for the less successful looking for an excuse. It bestows a God-given patriarchal domestic hierarchy and men have been using and abusing it ever since Moses descended from Mount Sinai.
Consider the drunken, dishevelled father, socially belittled in the world but believing himself king of all he surveys as sits at the kitchen table, his belligerence cowing his wife and children into silence.
It is such a scene Abigail Dean sets in the opening collage of events establishing the harrowing context for her fascinating debut novel, Girl A. (Page 62)
It is about Alex – dubbed Girl A in the press – the one who, amongst five siblings, escaped from being chained to a filthy bed in her father’s House of Horrors.
What Dean gets right, light as a finely honed radio signal, is how normal the world looks from inside Alex’s head. Until it’s not, and even then, it seems almost rational. Given the make up of the human psyche, it never could be, which is why the character of the psychologist is fascinating, as is the mother. And the question is: at what stage did the wielding of power shift from benign to abusive, and then when did it become cruel? And did the descent into cruelty coincide, or precede the onset of becoming unhinged, insane? Bearing in mind, mentally ill people are not necessarily cruel. More often, they tend to make bad decisions, which is what separates Alex from her father.
Rarely is mental illness treated with such sensitivity as in Dean’s hands. Many protagonists in novels are disturbed by a trauma – it is the pretext for the story – but the characters are usually making sane decisions in extreme circumstances. Few dare to wander deep into the territory of mental illness being the only sane reaction to a situation.
In the rear of all our minds is a media story about a family found held prisoner by the patriarch, often wielding a gun and a bible, or drugs, or all three. Dean appears to have done her research, and steps through the bewilderment and betrayal inflicted on the children with a touch as light as breath. Alex is imbued with impressive believability that, if one didn’t know better, might want to call authentic. Madness, like a family’s descent into isolation and abuse, is not a single event, it is made up of accumulations and shifts, and we see this reflected superbly.
Girl A is a stunning debut novel that goes behind the headlines and the spaces between the court transcripts to excavate the creeping systemic failures we bury beneath our headlong rush. And she goes further, beyond the door we refuse to acknowledge: in what way would we go mad?
Published by Harper Collins, Girl A is distributed here by Jonathan Ball Publishers. You can get it at the Book Lounge.