In search of salvation

This is a difficult novel to review, not least becRUBYause of its harrowing subject-matter. Ruby contains scene after scene of unrelenting abuse of children and women, run through by the racism that is inescapable for the inhabitants of post-war Liberty, a town in East Texas where black lives are valued less than white lives and black women’s lives are valued least of all. Furthermore, Bond has drawn on her own experience of being trafficked as a child to write the scenes where Ruby is abused in New York. As she states, ‘Writing Ruby became my salvation.’ The novel, when understood as a crucial exorcism, seems less something that should be criticised and more something to be listened to very carefully. The structural oppression of black people and of women is written into its very core, and it is undoubtedly important if only for this reason. However, Bond brings more to her story than a simple litany of misery.

The book took ten years to write, and stylistically, I think it shows. The structure is a little lumpy, the feel of certain scenes inconsistent. The long scene near the beginning of the novel where Ruby, her cousin Maggie and her longtime beau, Ephram, visit Ma Tante, a local practitioner of voodoo, is a great set-piece, but sits uncomfortably within the snappier pace of the rest of the novel. Nevertheless, I liked the fact that it feels rough around the edges, and you can still see some of the joins. It feels fitting for a story that traces such darkness for it to struggle to contain its own content. Similarly, Bond’s writing feels a little amateur, but in the very best way. Her prose fits Ruby perfectly, from the rhythm of the opening sentence (Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high) to the description of the man who becomes Ruby’s rescuer (The magical thing about Ephram Jennings was that if you looked real hard, you could see a circle of violet rimming the brown of his irises.)

Ruby seems to have been categorised as magical realism by virtually all its reviewers, but I felt that this description was a little off, although perhaps technically correct. The magic in Ruby is so deeply rooted in the place where it is set and in the psychological experiences of Ruby herself that it feels barely supernatural. When Ruby is tormented by the spirits of the children she has lost, the solidity of her visions only hammers home her pain more vividly to the reader, while the wandering Dybou that infects the souls of her abusers represents the rotten atmosphere that pervades the town. Bond anchors her imagery so effectively because she keeps returning to the experience of the body, cataloguing Ruby’s physicality, her clothing, her feelings as she lies naked in the dirt or in the river. This is an aspect of the novel that absolutely worked for me, heightening the horror of Ruby’s experience even further.

Having said all this, as a novel, Ruby did not quite convince me, although I’m glad that I read it. The presentation of the pure-hearted Ephram, the one good man among his abusive brethren in Liberty, didn’t ring true, and recalled Alice Walker’s awkward insertion of a single good man in The Color Purple, so Nettie might have somebody to marry. For a novel that so strongly contends that its characters are shaped by their experience, Ephram feels like an impossible gift, and the demonisation of all the other men in the novel felt like a narrative trick to make his goodness shine even brighter. The idea of Ruby being ‘saved’ by Ephram also undercut the novel’s depiction of the harrowing truth of abuse. Because I read this novel when it was on the shortlist for the Baileys Prize, I couldn’t help but compare it to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which also deals with a protagonist of colour suffering horrific abuse, and reaching out for the possibility of salvation with the one true love of his life. However, A Little Life is careful to emphasise that goodness is not personified in one man; Jude encounters other kindnesses. Furthermore, it has the courage to suggest that healing is not always possible. Bond is so graphic about how Ruby’s mind and body have been hurt by her abuse that the ending of the novel seemed to come rather too quickly. Ruby suddenly rising up and controlling her life makes sense in the context in which the book was written; but it’s not a convincing literary choice. After finishing it, I heard rumours that Ruby is the beginning of a trilogy, which explains a lot; and indeed, many of the issues I’ve just outlined may be addressed by Bond in the next two books.  In the end, both Ruby’s shortcomings and its successes seem shaped by the fact that the story it tells is so close to home.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley.

Glorious and portable

lisa-mcinerney-glorious-heresiesOver the next two days, I’m going to blog about the Baileys Prize shortlist before the prize ceremony on Wednesday. Tomorrow, I’ll be reviewing Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, and  I’ll also publish my ranking of the four books on the shortlist I’ve read.

I was sold Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies on the promise that it featured a realistic teenager (one of my previous rants on the subject of many writers’ inability to write teenagers can be found here) and this promise was absolutely fulfilled. McInerney treads especially dangerous ground with Ryan, the beating heart of her marvellous Cork-set novel, because he seems to fit into so many ‘juvenile delinquent’ stereotypes. Expelled from school for dealing drugs, he presses forward with his career choice without regrets, and is soon becoming involved in the same kind of murky underworld dealings in which his father, Tony, is a reluctant participant. His beautiful and ambitious girlfriend, Karine, is the one anomaly in an otherwise familiar trajectory, and he believes he has already cheated on her. Nevertheless, McInerney never allows Ryan to become a case study or a symbol. He’s a person whom we care about from the first page, when he leaves ‘the boy’ in himself ‘outside its own front door… a pile of mangled, skinny limbs’. Even more importantly, Ryan doesn’t become what I sometimes call a ‘sympathy drain’; a character who is so likeable that he sucks in the reader’s ability to relate to any of the other characters in the novel.

The cast of The Glorious Heresies is hardly full of nice people, and yet McInerney refrains from writing any of the major characters as irreedemable, which, ironically, only throws their transgressions into sharper relief. Tony is a perfect example. If he had been written as a total brute, he would focus as a plot mechanism rather than as a character; an obstacle in Ryan’s way. Because McInerney nails his cowardice, his weakness, his awareness of all these things so perfectly, he becomes someone who we respond to with realistic anger, rather than a black-hearted villain. Character is absolutely the strength of this novel, but McInerney’s fantastic prose is also worth mentioning. When ex-drug addict and ex-prostitute Georgie looks out over Cork in the morning, we see the city through her eyes:  ‘The air was cold, stripped of the fragments it had picked up the day before, though it would be stale by midday and offering mouthfuls of flies by dusk… Back in the city there was traffic and torment from dawn. Out here, so long as the air held that chill, the limbo between then and now stretched as far as she needed.’ If I hadn’t fallen in love with A Little Life so absolutely, this would definitely be my pick for the Baileys Prize.

109122-fc501At the other end of the spectrum is Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen. I rarely read a novel that leaves me so baffled. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I gave up on The Portable Veblen a third of the way through, so perhaps it all makes sense later on. But the ingredients weren’t looking promising. McKenzie seems to be writing a quirky, surreal novel that has nothing really quirky or surreal about it, stalker squirrels notwithstanding. We’re introduced to Veblen, an all-too-familiar thirty-year-old woman who is drifting through life doing freelance translation, has a difficult family and may have just agreed to marry a man who she doesn’t love. She’s distinguished by her unusual name and her unrealistic dialogue (“This morning it came to the window – I think it wants to befriend me,” Veblen said, quite naturally). Paul, Veblen’s fiancee, has just entered a mysterious deal with a pharmaceutical company to produce a ‘pneumatic turbo skull punch’ for the battlefield; these sections of the novel were rather more interesting, as they seemed to be warming up towards something like the bizarre social satire favoured by George Saunders, but still didn’t seem original enough to persuade me to carry on. There just seemed to be so little going for The Portable Veblen – dull prose, familiar characters and too much weirdness for weirdness’s sake – that I decided life was too short. But I’m willing to be proved wrong.

The dragon and the witch

Uprooted+PBThe back cover copy for Uprooted is, very unusually, a beautiful piece of prose in its own right:

Agnieszka loves her village, set deep in a peaceful valley. But the nearby enchanted forest casts a shadow over her home. Many have been lost to the Wood and none return unchanged. The villagers depend on an ageless wizard, the Dragon, to protect them from the forest’s dark magic. However, his help comes at a terrible price. One young village woman must serve him for ten years, leaving all they value behind. 

Agnieszka fears her dearest friend Kasia will be picked at the next choosing, for she’s everything Agnieszka is not – beautiful, graceful and brave. Yet when the Dragon comes, it’s not Kasia he takes.

The cadence and cleverness of that last sentence! However, although it certainly did its job in selling the book to me, it is – as this review from Tor also suggests – rather misleading. It suggests, in short, a much straighter retelling of Beauty and the Beast than we actually get, and – having been brought up on Robin McKinley’s beautiful retellings – I found myself a little disappointed when I realised the plot was not going in that direction. (And in response to that review, Beauty and the Beast retellings do not have to depict abusive relationships – end of.) Nevertheless, Uprooted brings a lot to the table. Its most distinctive feature is its antagonist, the Wood. Naomi Novik handles the threat posed by the semi-sentient and semi-mobile Wood perfectly, creating a genuinely terrifying adversary for Agnieszka and her allies. Let’s take just one example of this shiver-inducing prose. Early in the novel, an unfortunate village girl is captured by the Wood, and although Agnieszka manages to rescue her, she realises that the Wood is still inside her:

‘Where [the light] played over her I saw thick green shadows, mottled like layers of leaves on leaves. Something looked at me out of her eyes, its face still and strange and inhuman. I recognised it; what looked out at me was the same thing I had felt in the wood, trying to find me.’

Frightening stuff! Novik continues to develop the powers of the Wood throughout the novel, so it never becomes too familiar, and hence continues to unsettle the reader.The reason for its corruption and malice is well seeded and provides a satisfying twist at the end.

Nevertheless, although I enjoyed Uprooted immensely, I found myself wishing that Novik could have given her readers more breathing space; that the relative quietness of the opening chapters could have been returned to occasionally throughout the story. The pace of the novel is simply relentless. Things happen, happen, happen and keep on happening. Novik is a strong enough writer to manage these threads, and we never feel as if our protagonists are being diverted onto pointless side quests, but that each new event, if initially surprising, feeds into the broader story that is developing. But personally, I would have appreciated more breaks to take in some of the beauty and eeriness of the world that Novik has created, especially as there is no chance of the tension letting up when the Wood is looming over everything. Indeed, a moment of stillness when Agnieszka feels helpless before it and there isn’t anything that she can do might have made it even scarier.

This, of course, is partly a personal preference, and there’s no point in castigating a novel for not being something that it never intended to be. But I felt that the characterisation suffered in consequence. Uprooted has been praised for its complex depiction of relationships, especially those between women, and it’s definitely refreshing, in a modern fantasy such as this one, to see women working together rather than being pitched against each other. However, there simply isn’t enough time given in the novel to Agnieszka’s relationship with Kasia for us to get much sense of it as a specific friendship, rather than the generic idea that the two women care very deeply about each other. It’s a shame, as Novik clearly has the ability to have done something more interesting here. Similarly, while I liked Agnieszka herself, the initial subtleties of her characterisation were sacrificed to the need to have her continually be active, and to the rather overwhelming power of her magic. Agnieszka’s talents rather irritated me, unfortunately – I felt they could either be read as her being immensely more powerful than everyone around her, even those who had been training for decades, which is not a trope I like at all, or as her ‘female’, natural power being complementary to the more ‘male’, academic power of the Dragon, which is obviously problematic. This all sounds rather negative, but these things stood out to me because Uprooted is otherwise so good, so I was less prepared to see it fall into these stereotypes.

Uprooted is engrossing and gripping, and Novik’s Wood feels like a genuine piece of folktale – something that many writers aim for, but few manage. I certainly recommend it – but don’t expect to have much time for reflection.