"Death changes everything." So begins Dorothy Allison's sprawling, ambitious, and deeply satisfying second novel, Cavedweller. For Delia Byrd, Randall Pritchard's death in a motorcycle accident launches a journey of several thousand miles and almost two decades, a rebirth of sorts that's also a return to her roots. Years before, the handsome but untrustworthy rock star Randall helped Delia flee an abusive husband; Delia escapes physical danger but leaves her two small children behind. In California, her abandoned daughters haunt her dreams and preoccupy her waking hours, even as she sings in Randall's band and gives birth to another daughter, Cissy. But when Randall is killed in a motorcycle accident, Delia packs rebellious Cissy into a broken-down Datsun, bound for Cayro, Georgia, and the one thing that suddenly matters more than anything else: her abandoned children and the chance to be a mother to them once again.
Cayro's poverty is emotional as well as material; the town is a hard place, full of hard people. To them, Delia will always be "that bitch" who abandoned her babies, "that hippie" living a life of sin. Nonetheless, Delia forges a cruel bargain with her former husband: in exchange for Delia's agreeing to care for him as he dies, he gives her a chance to reclaim her daughters. Like Bastard out of Carolina, Allison's acclaimed debut novel, Cavedweller is a chronicle of rage, strength, and survival. Here, however, Allison is equally concerned with the redemptive power of love and forgiveness, and a novel that began with death ends on an unexpectedly sanguine note: "'Yes, it's time for some new songs.'" There are no victims in Dorothy Allison's work; Delia triumphs through sheer force of will, bringing her family together despite the contempt of almost everyone around her.
The novel has its flaws--including occasionally flat-footed prose--but it is in the end compulsively readable, and it's populated by some of the most memorable characters in recent fiction: tough, prickly, flawed, and deeply human, Delia and Cissy are literary creations of the first rank. In describing the complicated emotions that bind and divide them, Allison demonstrates a profoundly unsentimental understanding of the way the human heart works. Cavedweller is the work of a mature artist, her best fiction to date. [via]