Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of California

Perhaps you'll excuse me. Or perhaps you've learned not to expect too much here. We've had family visiting for the last ten days -- not much reading got done, never mind writing about it. So it's catch-up time again.

I can't go any longer without saying that if you haven't yet read Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina, you really should. I'd been told that years ago, but never got around to it and then picked up a secondhand copy a few weeks ago when I found myself stuck in town without anything to read. (We don't have a decent bookstore in the downtown core of our small city anymore, sadly, although we had a brilliant independent for many years -- now there's a Chapters in a strip mall out by all the big boxes, and all those armchairs don't fool me at all. But we do have a concentration of very good secondhand--and antiquarian--bookshops just two blocks from where I get off the ferry, and if I weren't concerned about preserving some of my domestic square footage for moving around, cooking meals, and sleeping, I could be bringing great titles home daily.)

So back to Bastard. We've all read the novels with childhood abuse at their core, many of them very worthy, some slightly exploitative and even sensationalizing, that began hitting the bookshelves and even the bestseller lists in the 1980s and 1990s. These did important work, and the cultural landscape today, in North America at least, is much more attuned to the possibility that there are as many dangers for children in the home as there are outside. The attendant shame and silence that were such potent enforcers of secrecy have become less effective at protecting the abusers and victims can read of others who spoke out, were heard, accepted, even healed -- in theory, at least.

But some readers may have begun to find these books formulaic. Their numbers risked minimizing the horrors suffered by individuals into a cliché that sometimes had us beginning to thumb the pages impatiently, knowing what was going to be revealed as soon as we noted certain elements in the opening chapters.

Not so with Addison's devastating novel. There is not a single banal note here. Love and hate, pain and happiness, hopeful innocence and betrayed experience all mix together here in the voice of a woman remembering her childhood in a closeknit chaotic family in very poor Carolina. Her descriptions of place are compelling with a child's eye view that is utterly credible. The social analysis is trenchant but not intrusive -- while the abuser is clearly identified, clearly culpable, the social web in which he commits his crimes is outlined as well. Class, gender all play a part, but they're not simplistically separated or identified -- complexity rules, as in life.

And the ending -- well, I can't tell you too much, can I, since that might spoil the reading for you, but you'll realize quite quickly that you're not getting any Hollywood treat. I try to convince my students sometimes that redemption can be found in the very act of telling, writing -- that the aesthetic object (the novel) wrung out of painful experience can be "the happy ending" they want. Certainly, with this novel, there will be ample reward in the beautiful, powerful writing, in the insights it offers, the heightened awareness of children's intelligence and humanity and vulnerability to compensate you -- this is a book that will stay with you. Let me know what you think should you pick it up . . .

1 comment:

  1. I've heard of the book but not read it, and have perhaps dismissed it as just another example of its genre. However you make it sound quite compelling and I may have to reconsider.