Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
11 December, 2015
We’ve certainly had a run of incredibly good books for our book group choices this year. Last month’s book, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, was one I hadn’t heard of before but the cover was so gorgeous I had to go and get myself a physical copy of the book instead of a kindle download. Don’t you love it when a cover hooks you like that?
There was also a recommendation from Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite writers and author of The Poisonwood Bible, which also further provoked my interest and she wasn’t wrong. Bastard Out of Carolina isn’t an easy read but it is brilliant. Brilliant because Allison manages to keep the tension simmering just below the surface, occasionally unleashing it, and then dropping in scenes of such domestic love and comfort that you forget the danger that lurks just behind the half-closed door.
Set in Carolina in the 50s, Allison’s novel centres on a large white-trash family with colourful characters and histories who love and fight their way through life. Our heroine Bone is the illegitimate daughter of teenage Mama, the youngest and fairest of her large, boisterous family. There are no ends to suitors but she falls for a charmer traveling through town who vanishes as soon as she gets pregnant. Nevertheless determined to correct Bone’s birth certificate, she faces the moral contempt of self-righteous officials at the town hall who refuse to change Bone’s legal status but she keeps trying year after year. Then she falls in love and marries a sweet young man who is ready to adopt Bone but who meets with an accident and Mama is left grieving with two little girls. Forsaking love, she works at the local diner until her brother Earl brings Glen, an intense young colleague who is the outcast son of a well-to-do local family with daddy issues. Glen is patient and woos Mama over a year and she gradually falls in love with this brooding young man who has been so starved of love and decides to marry him only after he promises to love both her and her girls. Blinded by her love for him, she fails to acknowledge his many complexes, especially when he cannot hold down a steady job without getting into fights. But Glen loves her and she loves him and they both believe that it will all come together. That is until tragedy strikes.
It’s pretty early on in the novel, but this loss coincides with a shocking incident that will completely derail the reader. Up until then, you may be forgiven if you think Bastard Out of Carolina is all about big families and poverty. The novel takes a decidedly darker tone and you see what menace lurks beneath the surface. Allison tackles the fragile structures of love and families through the secrets we keep from each other. And throughout this, the crux is Bone, so young, so alone and trying desperately to keep her small, precious family from falling apart. What Allison does so brilliantly is intersperse scenes of Daddy Glen’s anger within their nuclear family with the warm, protective nature of Bone’s extended family with her larger than life aunts and uncles who would do anything to protect their kin. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have problems of their own, what with their fighting, alcohol abuse and infidelities all casting a shadow across their lives. And yet they are in stark contrast to the cold, unwelcoming family in which Daddy Glen grew up and to whom he stubbornly brings his little family once a year to visit whether they like it or not.
As a psychological study, Daddy Glen is a classic case of the youngest son who didn’t grow into his potential and who is forever trying to please his successful father and two older brothers. But the most interesting character in this novel is Mama, who stays with Daddy Glen even though she knows things are not quite right in their house. Even after witnessing his harsh punishment for Bone’s adolescent transgressions, she makes a half-hearted effort to leave him but returns when he begs for forgiveness. For Daddy Glen, Mama is the love of his life. And so it becomes even harder to understand the motives behind his actions, even if you look to his unhappy childhood.
The bits that I liked the most were those describing Mama’s family. You see her bond with her siblings, their love for each other coming through so strongly at family gatherings, holidays and over food. The colourful histories of each individual are so captivating that you wish you were a part of their brood. And yet they weren’t enough to shield Bone.
Bastard Out of Carolina, like all the best books, leaves you with even more questions at the end. It’s dark and devastating but pierced with moments of such warmth and joy, that it will remain long in your heart. The inevitable ending may be more than you can bear but what happens after will truly break your heart.
Allison says that so many of her readers have told her that she has written their story and we can see why. She gets into the head of Bone so well, putting into words the confusing, constantly shifting feelings of fear, pain and anger which a child cannot fully express. She doesn’t sentimentalise or rationalise these thoughts, she just puts them down as they are. When everything is stripped away, what remains is Bone’s resilience. Although not autobiographical, nevertheless we can see parallels to Allison’s own childhood. Perhaps what she really wanted to explore was her mother’s choices. I’m not a fan of depressing novels and I read this was trepidation, dreading what was to come, but such is the power of Allison’s writing that I couldn’t keep myself from finishing this incredible novel.