The best books make it all look effortless. When you read a good book, you get so lost in it that you forget someone had to create this reflection of the world, create the characters. It's not that you forget that you are reading; you forget that someone was writing. The tone, the style and the characters all coalesce until you can't see the architecture. With a good book, you can't see the trees for the forest.
Bastard Out of Carolina is a dense wood indeed. Dorothy Allison has said that she sought to write something "totally real and accurate, [her] lived experience" with her first novel, published in 1992. It is the story of Ruth Anne "Bone" Boatwright, a child born to an unwed teenage mother who makes her living as a waitress at the local dinner. The book's attention is most keenly focussed on Bone's relationship with her increasingly abusive stepfather and with her mother.
At the core is a question not about why her mother didn't protect her, but about how she could have protected Bone. There is never any doubt that her mother, Anney, loves her, but she loves her husband, too, and she is not strong enough to choose between them, in spite of proving again and again that she is an incredibly strong woman.
Reading Bastard Out of Carolina, you can feel the grit of a hard life wedged underneath your fingernails. Bone's yearning disappointment that the world is such an unsafe, unfriendly place is heartbreaking, most of all because of her acceptance of that fact. Kids raised in a world of odd jobs, drink, crime and abuse have no reason to think the world can be better, because they have no glimpses of what better might be. This sounds like a grim premise for a book and there are certainly disturbing passages, scenes that almost seem to reach inside and squeeze you as you read them. By the end of the book, "Bone" is a very damaged child, not really a child anymore because she's been knocked around so much.