Hogarth (Random House), 2015.
Ruby is a violently beautiful novel, so lyrical and filled with well-crafted imagery that it is worthy of being read out loud. The poetry of Bond’s language belies the fact that this is her debut novel – it is such a heartbreaking portrait of race and relationships in the 1950s American South that the author is being compared favourably with Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. That being said, the characters do fall a little flat in the first part, although they develop greatly into flawed yet likeable individuals as the novel progresses.
The story revolves around the title character of Ruby, who is afflicted with “haints” – the ghosts of her own past as well as the stories she has taken on from others. She is victimized not only by these emotional hauntings but also by the real physical people in her community, whose sins range from neglect of the mentally ill to outright sexual abuse. As Ruby reflects, the monsters who abused her “were also normal men, which made it the most horrible of all.” (p. 318) It is a comment on an ostensibly tight-knit religious community who value nothing more than their appearance at church, yet ultimately turn against those in need of their Christian kindness.
With the help of childhood friend Ephram, Ruby searches for redemption from the cycle of victimization. As her stories unfold, it is difficult not to react viscerally to the devastating horrors of Ruby’s life, especially the knowledge that it is rooted in reality: our collective history of the atrocities that took place only half a century ago in the darkness of the American South. As one character sums it up, “Hell, ain’t nothing strange when colored go crazy. Strange is when we don’t.” (p. 71)
There has been much discussion about whether the violence in this novel is gratuitous, but in my opinion, it is just enough to show the full extent of why Ruby turned out the way she did: mentally ill and unable to understand love. Her emotional trauma is summed up by her words to her ghost children: “The womb or the earth. Only two places children be safe.” (p. 104) Even so, Ephram works hard to show Ruby what love is, and the sweetness of the interactions between the two of them is heartbreaking. She is so honoured by his simple attentions, such as brushing her hair, and she finds it almost unbelievable that he could care for her. He forces her to recognize her own self-worth: “She could never again pretend she had not felt her worth. It would always haunt her.” (p. 264)
The way Ruby blossoms under Ephram’s care makes it even worse that he waited eleven years to rekindle their relationship – in fact it seemed like his decision came out of the blue, and it did feel like the plot was unnaturally paced for the first part of the novel. On the other hand, it also showed the true extent of Ephram’s weakness and his unusual relationship of submission to his sister-mama.
Once Ruby and Ephram did come back together, the novel bloomed as well, and expanded to include many more characters. There were so many hints about interesting women such as Ruby’s cousin Maggie, as well as both Ruby and Ephram’s mothers – I would love to read more about them in the future. I especially enjoyed the way the story was told once, and then retold through multiple points of view until we finally have enough to piece together the truth. Everyone knows more than they let on and they handle this truth-telling in different ways. I felt like there are many stories yet to be told by Cynthia Bond, and I look forward to reading them.