Ruby by Cynthia Bond, Hogarth, 2014
When Ruby Bell returned to her hometown of Liberty, Texas from New York City, she arrived well turned out, a striking beauty, poised and polished with city sophistication. But within weeks of reclaiming her family homestead, Ruby has become someone else entirely: filthy, incoherent, wild, seemingly possessed. The women in Liberty avoid her and the men take advantage of her, until Ephram, a gentle man and childhood friend, sets his mind to reaching out. This simple kindness of bringing cake becomes a radical act of love, opening up a long-lost place in Ruby's heart and setting loose a powerful storm in a community which has been silent witness and accomplice to generations of violence.
It is perhaps strange to describe a book containing so much cruelty - and the cruelty is very truly heartbreaking - as beautiful, but Ruby is an incredibly beautiful novel. With evocative descriptions and characterization, the author brings alive every detail of life in this small, southern town, from the landscape of its piney woods and Ruby's beloved chinaberry tree to the domestic responsibilities of housekeeping and the fine fingerwork of lace-making; from the rhythm of casual conversational banter, to the rigid observances and competitive jealousies of social hierarchy. The novel is also infused with the supernatural, slipping seamlessly between earthly and spirit realms, with both a fearsome Dyboù and and Ruby's collection of fragile, tormented souls:
"The reaching pines knew that there were legions of spirits tromping through their woods, trapped in thick underbrush, bound beneath the crisscross of branches, in places...where the sunlight never hit the earth. Some were haints still hanging from the tree they'd been lynched on. Some let the wind roll them like tumbleweeds from one side of the woods to the other. Some were angry and smelled of burned candles, like the rolling dank shadow haunting Bell land, swollen with such hate that it bent the new saplings aside when it passed. It shifted the cush of brown needles and leaves beneath it."Ruby unfolds with elegant suspense, peeling back through family histories, a town's secrets revealed layer by layer. With each chapter, Bond brings us deeply inside one of the town's many characters - each worthy of a story of his or her own - but it is in their connections that the true story emerges, and it is larger than any one of them. The novel explores race, gender and religious expectation and convention, rules and boundaries, and what happens when one dares to subvert them. The brutality in Ruby's story may be terrible, but there is also so much tenderness, and ultimately the novel celebrates the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. Powerful and moving, with striking writing to admire at every turn, I loved Ruby and highly recommend it.
My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of the novel.