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.

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4 thoughts on “In search of salvation

  1. I felt pretty much exactly the same way about Ruby as you did, especially the “salvation through love of a good man” thing. I heard Cynthia Bond speaking at Emerald Street Literary Festival this weekend, though, and she was fantastic talking about her process: the novel was originally 900 pages long, which I think explains the pacing oddness. Her publisher got her to break it up into a trilogy, but still, if that scene with Ma Tante was written to sit within a 900-page piece, its length makes a lot more sense!

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    • So glad you felt the same – I had a hard time writing this review as there seems to have been little criticism of the novel. The 900+ pages titbit makes a lot more sense of the structure of the book and perhaps of its rather unsatisfactory ending.

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      • Yeah, it can be quite scary to feel like you’re going against the critical consensus about a novel… This one really disturbed me, in that it was like A Little Life but more condensed, so you could never fully escape the horror of the things you were reading. And I also thought that the prose and structure were a tad unpolished. It feels vaguely churlish to mention it when the content is so dark and hard-hitting, but there ’tis.

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  2. Yes – I felt that I had to explain myself with Ruby because I loved A Little Life so much, despite being fully aware that it is structurally repetitive and overlong and has occasional issues with prose as well. I had a very emotional reaction to A Little Life, I couldn’t put it down. In its defence, I think it is much more interesting and thoughtful on abuse than Ruby, probably the best novel on the subject I have ever read.

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