Debut novelist Zelda Lockhart studied with writer Dorothy Allison, and the evidence of that link lies on every page. Like much of Allison's work,Fifth Born is a painful read. In a voice with the same immediacy as that of Allison's protagonist, Bone, in Bastard Out of Carolina, Lockhart's endearing Odessa, the "fifth born" child in an ever-expanding family, is the keen-eyed observer who takes readers on a harrowing journey through adolescence.
Odessa's unruly Mississippi family moves north to St. Louis, but their problems follow close behind. Her "Deddy," an alcoholic with "a dullness behind his eyes from so much wanting and not enough getting," wields his belt as a weapon, and the threat of its usage is omnipresent. But the belt is just one symbol of the power he holds. Odessa's mama, a prototypical enabler, makes up stories to mask the family abuse rather than risk confrontation, convincing a young Odessa of her inability to see things clearly.
Odessa's story, unfortunately, is not a new one. But Lockhart's literary sensibilities, so well honed for a newcomer, raise the bar for the typical abuse tale. The raw intensity of her prose sings with tension and stuns with its ability to affect. But Fifth Born does not end without hope. Odessa goes in search of the truth and begins to see more clearly than ever the terrible darkness the cloak of secrecy has compelled her family to live within, and to realize that she, though wounded, may find someone to love her after all.
(Fall 2002 Selection)