I purchased Dorothy Allison’s debut novel on the recommendation of Mercy, who runs one of my favourite BookTube channels. I adore books set within the Southern states of America, and was so surprised that I hadn’t come across Bastard Out of Carolina before. An author like Allison, who has been likened to both Flannery O’Connor and my beloved Harper Lee, is certainly deserving of a lot of space on my bookshelf.
Bastard Out of Carolina has such a wonderful premise, one which automatically sent me rushing to AbeBooks to order a copy: ‘[South] Carolina in the 1950s, and Bone – christened Ruth Anna Boatwright – lives a happy life, in and out of her aunt’s houses, playing with her cousins on the porch, sipping ice tea, loving her little sister Reece and her beautiful young mother. But Glen Waddell has been watching them all, wanting her mother too, and when he promises a new life for the family, her mother gratefully accepts. Soon Bone finds herself in a different, terrible world, living in fear, and an exile from everything she knows.’
The Boatwrights are essentially a ‘white trash’ family, living in a relatively small town in Greenville County, South Carolina during the 1950s. The whole is told from Bone’s perspective, and her opening passage is so intriguing: ‘I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne. I was named for and by my oldest aunt. Aunt Ruth. My Mama didn’t have much to say about it, since strictly speaking she wasn’t there’. Unsure of her father’s identity, Bone is ‘certified a bastard by the state of South Carolina’, something which profoundly affects her throughout her formative years.
Allison has rendered her debut both gritty and dark. The whole of Bastard Out of Carolina is gripping, and contains so many memorable scenes and characters. Bone’s first person perspective works perfectly with the unfolding story, and one is immediately given a feel for her world. I was reminded throughout of Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys and Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries; there is the same feel of absorption here, and a wonderfully memorable narrator.
Published in 1992, Bastard Out of Carolina is a modern classic in all respects; it is a powerful, poignant, memorable and important coming-of-age novel. It is taut and so well crafted, and in every respect, it is an admirable work. I for one cannot wait to get stuck into Allison’s other books.