There were times when reading Ruby truly felt like being in the grip of a nightmare. Shortlisted for the Baileys’ Prize this year, this novel recalls earlier works such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. At first glance, this is a love story – middle-aged Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the running girl with the long braids, Ruby Bell, who was ‘the kind of pretty it hurt to look at.’ Of course, this was a long, long time ago. Ruby Bell took off from the all black East Texas town of Liberty Township to go to New York, in the hopes of finding her mother but aged thirty she returned, summoned home by a telegram from her cousin. Upon arrival though, the horrors of her past overwhelm her and she is enveloped by the ‘crazy’, the town becoming blind to her since they never expected she would meet any other end. With details drawn from the author’s own life, this is a book that is often agonising – I received the review copy with no background information, so as the truth of Ruby’s background unfurled, I was left stunned by the level of suffering experienced. Worse still was the discovery that much of the novel reflects details of the author’s own life. Yet, as Ephram says to Ruby later in the novel, if Ruby is ‘brave enough to live it, the least I can do is listen.’ Ruby is a novel of survival, it may be one scratched and gouged and barely won, but it is about survival nonetheless – the locals believe that Ruby is herself a ‘haint’, or a ghostly lost soul and indeed, hers is a story that will truly haunt me.
Ephram Jennings has lived with his sister since childhood, since the Easter Sunday when he was eight and his mother arrived at the church picnic ‘just as God made her.’ She was hauled away speedily by their father, the Reverend Jennings, to the ‘colored mental hospital’ in Dearing and a few years after that, Reverend Jennings was himself lynched ‘by the white man’. Ephram calls his sister Celia ‘Mama’, does as he is told and never answers back – but then one day he asks her to bake an angel cake, then battles against all nay-sayers who would stand in the way of him taking it to Ruby Bell.
Ruby and Ephram met only once, as children, in the company of Ruby’s cousin Maggie. They spent the afternoon together, visited the town witch and shared a strange understanding. Ruby was known to be different since she lived most of the year with ‘that white lady’, supposedly helping her look after her children but as the book unfurls, it becomes clear that she is actually required to do truly horrifying things. From when Ruby was only five, ‘that white lady’ has been having ‘friends’ visit Ruby for pocket change and saying no is not an option. It gradually becomes clear just how far Ephram’s father was involved in setting up the whole situation – as someone prone to dizziness and fainting when confronted with the unpleasant, I quickly realised that I had made a big mistake in trying to read this book on the bus. (n.b. I didn’t faint but it was a close run thing.)
Ruby’s family, the Bells, have long been overshadowed by tragedy – Ruby’s eldest aunt Neva was forced to give in to the demands of a married white man and when his adultery became too flagrant for the community to avoid, Neva was brutally murdered by the Klu Klux Klan sheriff and his deputies. This is a crime which was also committed against Bond’s own aunt. As further punishment against the family, Ruby’s mother and younger sister were gang raped, resulting in Ruby’s own conception. With no father to speak of and a traumatised mother who had fled to New York, Ruby has nobody to speak for her, no one to protect her and the men who she sees treating their daughters nicely and speaking sweetly to their wives have no such kindness for her.
I had no idea of the subject matter of this book when I picked it up – I have ended up reading a series of books about rape lately and it does lead one to a rather dispiriting view of the human race. Ruby has strong supernatural elements, with the Devil hanging round to bring Ruby down and the spirits of her cousin Maggie, her own lost child, a fellow-victim who she saw murdered – but yet this does make the novel seem unbelievable since these are very apt metaphors for how Ruby is haunted, chased, pursued by her past. Liberty Township is not a place where she can be free – the men who are so respectable in church think nothing of taking out their pleasure on Ruby – she is less than nothing, a filthy whore, whore born of whores, hurting her is no crime. Ephram’s simple kindness is the aberration, his desire to help Ruby a sin against his upbringing, a disgrace to his Mama Celia.
I remember when I was studying The Color Purple (often with a buzzing head since the themes of rape really got to me) and a criticism in an article about it was the way it supports the notion of ‘sisterhoods are beautiful and men stink.’ There is a certain element of ‘men stink’ in Ruby, and many of them are guilty of truly unspeakable acts – but women hardly fare better. For Celia, all that matters is being Church Mother. For her fellow church sisters, they know that Ruby Bell has to be stopped before she gets her claws into another man. One mother laments the fact that her daughter ran off to be a lesbian, still further that their abduction and attempted exorcism failed and that the daughter died during her escape attempt. There is no grace, no compassion, no love in their religion. The only one who shows any humanity is Ephram but the question mark is heavy concerning whether he will be able to save Ruby from the forces that plague her. Can the celibate food-bagger from the supermarket show the half-crazy girl what love really means?
There are some big questions being asked here – as a child, Ruby is reminded that she is bad, that even when she is good she is bad. She is reminded that it is easier for men to do things to her rather than to a white little girl, since white little girls are good even when they’re bad. The Reverend Jennings explains to his other congregation that God is an old white man, not interested in ‘colored folk’, so they had best make their deal with another authority. Always it is clear that Bond is speaking from personal experience – even as Ruby reaches adulthood and flees to New York in the hopes of finding her mother, finding herself in a city where black girls and white girls ‘pretend to be equal’, she has no idea how to love, how to treat herself, how to operate without using her body as a commodity. She has been forced to do such awful things for so long, it is all she knows, she is disgusted with herself – she believes herself to blame. The dual forces of sexism and racism here have had a toxic combination – this is cruelty, injustice, evil in its purest form, but Ephram sees Ruby’s heart, sees her for the girl she once was.
Yet still, this is such a different book to Asking For It – this is about survival, about living with something truly unspeakable in your past and finding a way of not letting yourself be defined by it. In the afterword, Bond describes writing Ruby as having been a personal salvation and there is a kind of triumph to the book’s finale – a recognition that things can get better. Magical realism meets the ugliest and most vile aspects of the human experience and creates a book that feels somehow necessary – there were moments when I found Ruby a struggle to get through but as in the opening paragraph, I felt that if Bond had been strong enough to live the experiences that gave her the knowledge to write a story so convincingly agonising, the very least I could do was to listen. It is so easy to turn away from messy suffering, Ruby grants understanding and a voice to all those like both its heroine and its author – may they find peace, may they find healing and may we learn to see them more clearly..
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Published by Hachette UK on March 12th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Literary, African American, Contemporary Women, General
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