A mother goes missing. A home is set ablaze. A mystery unfolds.
Sara Flannery Murphy’s latest novel follows a compelling mystery spooling out in early 1990’s Chicago – a woman has disappeared, her home ablaze, and her adult daughter is left searching for her – in a world where seemingly virgin birth has been achieved by a rogue scientist decades earlier and our heroine, the aforementioned adult daughter, the eldest of nine of these miracle children (hence her moniker of ‘Girl One’), journeys to find her missing mother.
It’s a testament to Flannery Murphy’s writing that the story manages to envelop the reader in hard scientific theory and make it engaging and compulsively readable. (For those of you looking for another enjoyable parthogenesis-themed novel, this reviewer would recommend Shaun David Hutchinson’s The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, a YA yarn about a girl whose own virgin birth heralds the mark of a new messiah.)
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It’s clear that Flannery Murphy’s influences delve deep into modern sci-fi – the placement of the novel in 1994 seems poised for comparisons to Jurassic Park’s own genetics-bending premise, both replete with female-only creations and a seemingly benign presence at the helm of each respective scientific breakthrough. More modern comparisons are even easier to spot – it’s not hard to see this steeped in the same exploration of genetics, bodily autonomy, and female identity as Orphan Black or The Handmaid’s Tale’s focus on subjugation, and women as possessions or property and the violent ramifications that often follow.
The story itself is simple enough – a road trip to find Josephine’s mother by visiting other Girls, now young women, scattered across the United States after escaping the destruction of the Homestead compound (it reminds this reviewer of, again, the beats but certainly not the plot of Grady Hendrix’s latest horror tome) – but the story introduces subplots and twists and turns that make this far from a straightforward adventure. Let’s say that there are far more to the Girls than first meet the eye.
The characters are striking and immediate; lead Josephine is smart and vulnerable, while fellow Girls and allies Cate and Isabelle are radiantly compassionate and pleasingly brittle respectively. Additional interludes in the narrative, in the forms of newspaper articles covering the Girls, and letters from Dr Bellanger, the Homestead’s long-deceased leader, to a young Josephine, help shade in other characters and provide context to a pivotal moment in time decades prior. Without giving too much away about the book’s plot, some major players are sidelined by large chunks of the novel and brought back for too short a span of time when their presence could have been more pronounced, while others are given a single chapter to shine when more depth and breadth could have been utilised.
These however are quibbles in the face of a genuinely page-turning novel that asks questions about identity, about gender, about the rights of scientists who ask not if they can do something, but rather if they should. As Josephine and her motley crew of allies traverse the country, Girl One raises these questions amidst their fight for survival, their own explorations with generational trauma and their right to exist and create their own choices and own lives under the same kind of scrutiny that unfortunately exists today.
Ultimately, Girl One is a thrilling and intriguing story, unafraid to explore the mundane darknesses and cruelties commonplace within society through the lens of dazzling science fiction, without sacrificing the beating heart at its core, one which sees the atrocities, both large and small, inflicted upon women every day, and yet rises to meet them and fight back.
Girl One is out on 5th August from Raven Books.