GIRL ONE, Sara Flannery Murphy’s second novel, is a multi-faceted, complex piece of feminist thriller, self-described as ‘ORPHAN BLACK meets Margaret Atwood’ which is a succinct way to label it. The story kicks off in the 1970s, where nine girls were born over time by nine women, without the need of sperm, procreating exact younger copies of themselves. However, the scientist behind this method was Joseph Bellanger, an older man with a wife and two sons, but he still felt like the nine girls were also his kin, and he wasn’t shy about showing them off to the media.
All of the women and girls live on the Homefront, a compound located in rural Vermont. One night, a fire breaks out and Bellanger and Girl Nine (Fiona) fail to make it out. All of the scientific notes — which were never shared with anyone — go up in smoke. The fire is blamed on a rabble-rousing preacher who proclaimed that this event would bring about the end of men, and said Bellanger would burn in hell. He was convicted of setting fire to the compound and thrown into jail. The women detach from each other and try to live separate lives with their daughter.
Fast-forward to 1994. Girl One, Josephine Marrow — or Josie — was the first born, and she’s had a fractured relationship with her mother, Margaret Marrow, especially after she declared to her mother that she wished to continue her ‘father’s’ work. In the midst of her exams at the University of Chicago (genre writers really love both Chicago -and- Vermont, as it seems like two-thirds of the books I read take place in either region), she hears about her mother’s home catching fire, and that her mother cannot be found. Josie sets out to locate her, which inevitably intertwines her with the other Homestead mothers and daughters on a journey of discovery.
This is not a subtle work, but it’s not meant to be. It is primarily — but not completely — focused on exploring the desperate throes of a patriarchal society when threatened. The nine girls were pilloried by many as the downfall of men and society in general, at least until Bellanger’s death. The girls — most of them women by now — still have to suffer a litany of labors at the hands of men in order to get the answers they need, and it becomes increasingly clear to Josie that they’re seen as dangerous aberrations.
Reading this over the past week, I’m obviously struck by the parallels with the enacted abortion restrictions in Texas, the power struggle and suppression and, while anyone who has been paying attention to the GOP over the the years has seen this coming, it’s heartbreaking, and GIRL ONE wrangles that frustration and anger and turns it into one hell of a well-constructed tale. (It’s worth noting that Murphy lives in Utah.)
While the prose occasionally falters, it’s thrillingly plotted. Even better, all of the women are more or less assholes in one way or another, with traits like being: aloof, vain, willful to the point of blindness, over-protective, or overly combative. No one here is quintessentially heroic, but they are human, and you root for them because you realize their flawed traits are born out of necessity. It’s a very inventive and engrossing take on, not only, the Frankenstein tale, but also witch folklore.
(One more thing: it’d make one hell of a TV mini-series.)