SECOND OPINION: Ruby by Cynthia Bond – Baileys Shortlist 2016

Review published on June 10, 2016.

From the Baileys Prize shortlist, a disturbing yet beautiful debut novel that contrasts mental illness and sexual abuse with magic realism.

When Ruby Bell returns to Liberty Township, her east Texas hometown, in 1964, everyone has something to say about her. Whether they’re gossiping about her dubious background or mocking the airs she puts on after her years in New York City, her fellow black folk turn her into a victim of derision. What’s worse, the churchgoing men of the town get the idea that they can use her body however they want – “the wolves were also normal men, which made it the most horrible of all.” In part this is because her mental health is deteriorating, and the more she struggles to stifle traumatic memories from her past the stranger she acts. Before long she’s urinating in the street, drooling and jerking, and taking no care for her appearance; “in view of the town, Ruby found what it was to no longer be seen as human.”

The only one who continues to see Ruby as a human being rather than a demon or a subhuman object is Ephram Jennings. Now in his forties, he still remembers Ruby as a childhood friend who accompanied him on timid visits to the house where Ma Tante did her voodoo magic. After everyone else has dismissed Ruby as beyond hope, he takes it upon himself to go to the Bell place and clean up the filth, bathe Ruby, lovingly untangle her hair, learn her history, and give her good meals. I found their relationship, reminiscent of that between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, very touching.

The novel moves fluidly between the past and present to give all of the central characters’ backstories – most of them unremittingly tragic. Ephram was raised by and still lives with his pious older sister, Celia. Their mother, Otha, was committed to an insane asylum after she turned up naked to a church picnic, and their father, Reverend Jennings, was later lynched. Look deeper into the Reverend’s history and you find a lot more disturbing violence. Delve into Ruby’s past and you witness an almost unbearable sequence of sexual abuse.

As difficult as some of these later scenes are to take, you feel entranced into continuing because of the touches of magic realism. Ruby communes with ‘her children’, ghosts of all the dead children she has known; Ephram absorbs Ruby’s history through her hair; and the Bell house is haunted by the Dyboù, an evil spirit that seems to be connected with someone from Ruby and Ephram’s past. My favourite sections of all followed Otha to the mental hospital, where this accomplished seamstress spends her time “making lace out of night air and moonbeams, pine scent and starlight.”

You can see why this was a choice for Oprah’s book club 2.0: it’s the kind of rich, harrowing storyline that Oprah goes for, and it’s sure to provoke good book club discussions. Bond wrote this in her early fifties, having spent much of her career teaching writing to homeless and at-risk youth in California. It’s partially autobiographical, based on personal experience of abuse and tragic events from her Texas family’s history. Out of the darkness Bond weaves magical language and scenes. I highly recommend this to fans of Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.

Rebecca Foster 4/5

Two Roads 9781473620513 pbk May 2015

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