Dogwood by Lindsay Parnell
13th Mar 2015
Dogwood is not like most books set in the American South. Other novels set in Virginia are stories of Southern belles or debutantes. Or murder mysteries. Those are popular too.
And while Dogwood absolutely has elements of the decay, displacement and anxiety common to those classics, it’s not the same.
Dogwood is bolder, brasher, brighter; a stolen car on a collision course with death and disaster, driven by bombed-out adolescent girls with no hope but each other.
The novel begins with a letter from protagonist Harper Haley. It details the death of Tara Hackett, a murderer who’s been given the lethal injection. From the conflicted, roundabout accounts that follow, we learn Harper’s relationship with Tara was complicated.
That’s to be expected, since they met in prison, where Harper was incarcerated for her own misdeeds. And because most of Harper’s relationships are complicated, especially with her mother (a grotesque caricature who Harper idolises to such an extent she’s referred to throughout as ‘She’ or ‘Her’), and her two best friends, Caro and Collier.
At only nineteen, Harper is released from prison on probation, and Dogwood recounts her homecoming between flashbacks to earlier misadventures with Collier and Caro.
It was the first summer we got lazy enough to start acting like the women who made us, and the first summer we started being bad.According to Harper, “nothing much happened before Caro… the day Caro showed up was the first summer we started. Slinking from house to house like lizards hiding under rocks to escape the stink of heat… It was the first summer we got lazy enough to start acting like the women who made us, and the first summer we started being bad.”
The girls are ‘seven, seven and nine’ when they meet for the first time, and between braving relentless heat and broken homes (‘my daddy Dennis smoke more dope than Satan do’) they form an intense, enduring bond that sees them sharing everything in the years that follow; mothers, pills, secrets, booze, beds, boyfriends and blows.
Over time, the trio’s exploits become more extreme, and Dogwood chronicles it all in unflinching, lurid, pitch-perfect detail.
More than anything, Caro, Collier and Harper are thirsty. Given the climate (‘the sun’s never weak, not never’), it’s understandable, but they’re thirsty for more than just liquor; they’re thirsty for experience, adventure, and escape (physical, sexual, emotional or chemical) from the suffocating claustrophobia of their small town where lives are essentially predestined and there’s ‘nothing to do but be bored.’
Exploring issues of family, identity, poverty, abuse and survival, Dogwood is uncomfortably, painfully brilliant; introducing a distinctive new voice while taking the reader on a dangerous joyride sure to leave them reeling despite the damage sustained en route. Powerful, bruising, brutal and perfect.