BOOK REVIEW / Just the way men are: Bastard out of Carolina - Dorothy Allison: Flamingo, pounds 5.99

Maureen Freely
Sunday 31 January 1993 00:02 GMT

'I HAD wanted to laugh at everyone, Raylene and the nurses, all of them watching me like some fragile piece of glass, ready to shatter around boiling water. I was boiling inside. I was cooking away. I was who I was going to be, and she was a terrible person.' The speaker is Ruth Anne 'Bone' Boatwright, the narrator of this stark but unflinchingly humane first novel. It begins with the account of her premature and illegitimate birth, and ends with her violent introduction to adulthood at the age of 12. But it is not so much a coming-of-age story as a tribute to her large, wild, hard-drinking, violent Southern cracker family.

Mother Anney is a nice, pretty, conscientious and affectionate woman who works hard in the diner after the accidental death of her first husband, the father of Bone's younger sister. Like all the women in her family except for the unconventional, unmarried and clearheaded Raylene, she tolerates no end of trouble from her rowdy brothers because that is 'just the way men are'. They, in turn, love her fiercely and protect her to the best of their (very limited) knowledge. One thing they do not find out until too late is that Bone's stepfather number two, the temperamental black sheep of a much wealthier family, has chosen Bone as his object for sexual and physical abuse.

The even-handed description of the dynamics that permit the outrages to be denied, and so continued, is what puts the novel into a class of its own. No one, not even the abuser, is deprived of his dignity, and yet the pain is served raw. Unlike so many American novels about families gone wrong, it does not award the sufferers with redemption or self-knowledge. Bone remains confused and boiling with hatred for everyone but the mother who can't protect her. It is only the clarity with which the narrator explains her confusion that suggests the older Bone is a wiser one.

Although her story has all the components of formulaic dirty realism, there is never any redneck posturing, no luxuriating in colourful bad language or behaviour. When she has a man cause a family crisis by telling his wife 'I wouldn't touch you even if you took a bath in whiskey tonic and put a bag over your head', it's not to glorify or denigrate a 'good ol' boy' but simply to report what he said.

This book has the hard-won honesty of Raymond Carver's best writing. It rises way above its story to illustrate almost too well the James Baldwin quote Allison uses as her dedication: 'People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply, by the lives they lead.'

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