BOSTON — CAVEDWELLER
By Dorothy Allison
E. P. Dutton
352 pp., $24.95
Dorothy Allison knows the hearts of women. She also knows their challenges. She proved this beautifully in her first novel, "Bastard Out of Carolina," which became a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award. The book is a seamless, almost poetic study of the emotions of a child, a poor white girl growing up with an abusive step-father and a mother who won't leave him. It's a tragedy told without flaw, and a tough act to follow.
"Cavedweller," Allison's new novel, takes us to some of those same places, this time with four women in Cayro, Ga. It's a lighter novel than her first and, for obvious reasons, lacks the same emotional punch.
But such comparisons seem unfair. This is a different story. It's a tale of a woman who does choose her daughters over herself; it's a tale of the resilience of childhood; it's a tale of how love - slow and measured - can heal wounds.
Allison's characters from the poor white South are fully drawn, fully human, because the author grew up with them. There are no saints or stereotypes in her writing. Her dialogue is real - terse and Southern. These are the real people behind the famous black-and-white documentary photographs of the poor, rural South.
"Cavedweller" opens in California, as Delia learns that her rock-and-roll singer boyfriend has been killed driving drunk. She's not surprised; she had already left him, and her career as a singer/songwriter, because she needed to change her life, to stop drinking, and to concentrate on raising their seven-year-old daughter, Cissy.
His death spurs Delia to reclaim the good parts of a rotten past she had run away from. She packs Cissy into her car and drives home to Georgia. She wants to reunite with her two daughters and face the abusive husband who had nearly killed her.
It is a cold-shouldered return. The only person glad to see Delia is her old friend MT. The two of them slowly take charge of the town beauty parlor. Gradually, Delia works up the courage to see her daughters.
But being away for a selfish 10 years, Delia has a huge debt to pay. Her mother-in-law refuses to let her near the girls. Delia turns to the minister for help. Nothing works. Boldly she moves into her dying husband's home, to care for him, and to make sure she retains legal custody of her girls. She and MT take them by force from Grandma's porch.
Of course, the girls don't like Delia. She had left when Amanda was two years old and Dede only 10 months old. They've lived 10 years without her. What did she expect? Slowly, love starts to change things. In time the girls come to accept their mother and half-sister Cissy. Gradually they come to love each other, to fit into one another's lives in unique ways. The "cave" of each woman's self opens to let in a ray of light, of love, of caring, of vulnerability.
Yet they keep a cool distance. For Allison, love isn't something warm and emotional. It's being there when someone needs you. It's accepting people with their twists and turns, their strengths and weaknesses - a limited love, but for these characters, good enough.
Nor do her characters need to talk about it. In their stiffness, there is silence. No one talks about the family tragedies, about what happened to Delia's parents and brothers. Seldom do they talk about how things could be different.
Each new generation has to figure out how to grow up, how to love, how to handle strain. "We don't never talk, do we?" daughter Dede asks her mother, after the girl lands in jail for shooting a boyfriend. Delia shakes her head. "We ain't the type."
Delia has done the right thing by coming home, facing her sin, dealing with her tormentors. This book seems to tell us what "Bastard Out of Carolina" couldn't: No matter how tragic your childhood, there is always hope. And your best hope is a few good women.
* Elizabeth A. Brown writes from Hillsborough, N.C.