Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Bastard Out of Carolina

Bastard Out of Carolina Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You don’t have to read all of this book to get what is probably its best part. You certainly should read it all – don’t get me wrong – but the essence of it comes to us in the first paragraphs when we hear Bone talk for the first time.

This is the story of a young girl growing into her full self in the face of a great deal of confusion (from her wild and colorful family) and more than her share of hostility (a childish, frightening and terribly abusive step-father). If the question underlying it is always, “What will she learn?” the answer comes to us in the first and really all the following lines: she will grow into her voice, a humorous, clever, musical and thoroughly original voice.

And, when you hear that voice in the first few lines of the book, you know the person speaking them is OK. You know, in other words, that our protagonist emerges from her tough times as a distinct and memorable self. It’s all there in the opening where she tells the story of her birth and her “accidentally” being recorded as a bastard at the county office. Think of a bud at the end of a branch; all the season’s growth is in it in miniature. If you pull it apart carefully enough, you can see everything that will follow.

So, without dismissing Bone’s sustained experiences – as she grapples with moving all the time, with discovering her sexuality, with her attraction to religion and gospel music and, above all, with negotiating her step-father’s growing abuse – this novel is the story of how a girl becomes a woman, how she learns enough to tell her own story.

The violence, naïve sexuality, and confusion about what it means to love someone can be harrowing. Toward the end – which you really must read to understand the depths from which Bone recovers – it gets harder and harder to endure. Bone calls out for someone to help her and, within the novel, she lacks the language to make herself heard. Seeing that, experiencing her when she has no voice, makes that “end” – the original and strong character who emerges as our narrator at the beginning – even more compelling.

Listen to the music of her every sentence. Yes, this book matters for what happens, but it’s memorable for how it happens, for the wonderful human voice at the heart of it.

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