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“Ruby had felt it then. The audacious hope of rooted things. The innocent anticipation of the shooting stalks, the quivering stillness of the watching trees.” –Cynthia Bond, Ruby
Ruby Bell, the beautiful and bizarre protagonist in Cynthia Bond’s new work Ruby (Hogarth), has been to hell and back. Raised in a small Southern town where the women of her family have made history for their beauty and tragedies, this story follows the audacious hopes of Ruby, who has had the odds stacked against her since before birth. Surviving unspeakable trauma, navigating the many people in love with her, and going to New York to locate her elusive mother, this book follows Ruby through her (seemingly damned) life. When the death of one of her dearest friends lands her back in her small hometown of Liberty Township, she finds herself reliving her past trauma, and being confronted with her demons, both literally and metaphorically.
Written in a Southern Gothic style akin to that of Randall Keenan (I’m thinking here of A Visitation of Spirits), this book walks the edge between reality and surrealism, perception and magical realism. Beginning with the sentence “Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high”, this book demands that the reader confront the burdensome expectations of gender roles. The poeticism of the narrative is exquisite, juxtaposing horrific imagery with dreamy evocative lyricism. The Gothic style of the writing perfectly matches the disassociation the characters in the novel must face due to extreme trauma, and the reader is often left feeling as ambiguous about the true facts of the narrative as the protagonists.
After all, what is truth? And for that matter, what is memory, when it has been hard pressed out of someone because the reality is too awful to bear in the conscious mind?
Consistent with the tonality of the book, even the point of view in the novel is not necessarily Ruby’s alone. A large part of the narrative is told from the perspective of Ephram Jennings, a middle-aged Christian preacher’s son who has been in love with Ruby Bell since they were children. In one of the most poignant moments in the book, Ephram is combing the knots from Ruby’s hair while she sleeps, untangling the most difficult and matted pieces of hair that have become dreadlocked with time. As he untangles, each knot reveals something about Ruby, feelings which become real to him in the process of combing: the terror of being pursued, the pleasure of kissing a lover, the abandonment of her mother. As he finishes the final, and most challenging, knot, Ephram has an epiphany that is central to the theme of the book: “So this is the life of a woman, he thought, and kneeling beside the bed, head on the mattress he fell asleep.”
By Cynthia Bond
Hardcover, 9780804139090, 326 pp.