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cavedweller book cover(The image is of the cover of the paperback Cavedweller. It shows a black and white picture of a small house overlooking a field of caves, with the title above it on a red banner.)

I've told you before how much I love and admire Dorothy Allison. Both her non-fiction work (Skin, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure) and her fiction (Trash, Bastard out of Carolina) is extremely impressive on an intellectual level, as well as deeply moving on a gut level. So I expected no less from Cavedweller, her second novel. And I'm sure it is only because I went in to reading it with such very high expectations that it was disappointing.

Cavedweller is a very good book. It's just not as good a book as Allison's other books.

The story, which follows the childhood of Cissy, who moves at a young age from Los Angeles to Cayro, Georgia with her mother, Delia, a recovering alcoholic and faded second-tier rock singer, doesn't hurt the way Bone's story in Bastard out of Carolina does. Though you are alternately in love with and pissed off by Delia, she doesn't spark the kind of pity and fury Bone's mother, Anney, does. Like in Bastard, the women in Cavedweller are strong and hard and more than a little bit crazy, and then men, both good and bad, are a little bit weak and simple. There is more room for forgiveness for that weakness and simplicity in Cavedweller, though, which may speak to Allison's greater maturity when she wrote it. The moral universe is not quite so black and white. But what it loses in clarity also makes it less compelling.

Bastard out of Carolina, is, to my mind, the kind of novel that someone writes only once. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, it is the novel that takes the other novels out of you. Given that, I think it was brave of Allison to write Cavedweller at all. Still, it's a sophomore novel, and it reads like one (albeit a particularly good one). Farther, probably, from Allison's personal essays than any of her other fiction, it loses something as it moves away from her. The characters in it that seem the most familiar (the wild and pained Dede in particular) are the strongest elements.

Should you read Cavedweller? Absolutely. You should just read all of Allison's other work first.


Yeah, I didn't like Cavedweller at all.

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