BookBrowse Reviews Ruby by Cynthia Bond

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Ruby

A Novel

by Cynthia Bond

Ruby by Cynthia Bond
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2015, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucy Rock

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Laced with a powerful sense of place and elements of hoodoo, this gut-wrenching yet captivating debut novel expertly explores difficult issues.

Liberty Township, an all-black community sitting on the East Texan plains is, at first glance, a rather ordinary place. It's full of assorted characters – from the red-blooded country boys who loiter outside the local liquor store and brothel; to the upstanding pillars of the community who find more solace in the word of God than at the bottom of a bottle. Each person knows his place in this community well and feels the need to keep up appearances. Everyone apart from Ruby Bell that is.

The daughter of an old, shamed Liberty family, Ruby has become a laughing stock. Shunned by the residents of the neighbourhood in which she has lived all her life, she staggers the streets in a daze, communicating with the ghosts who inhabit the graveyard outside her home. She leaves herself to be exploited and hated by her evangelical neighbors. Ruby is a lost cause – on the edge of an abyss.

The residents of Liberty believe that the Bell family is cursed. For instance, Ruby's mother is the target of some nasty incidents and abandons her daughter for life in the city. Ruby's aunt has also been through extremely trying circumstances. Abused from a young age, the adult Ruby treats her body as something apart from herself, to be used and discarded by the evil men who surround her.

If all this seems fairly grim, we find a break in the form of Ephram Jennings, a man who has been infatuated with Ruby Bell for as long as he can remember. Ephram is a simple soul who gives Ruby the hope and affection she needs. It is through Ephram's love and unwavering care that this jewel will, with any luck, finally regain her sparkle.

Debut novelist Cynthia Bond has been a teacher for over fifteen years and works with vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals, persuading them to take up their own pens. Luckily for us, she has taken time out from this admirable task to write a masterful novel. A native of East Texas herself, Ruby's tale is woven with the heat, racial prejudice and folklore of this part of the world; the novel recreates a terrifying fictional community where the life and innocence of children are nought and where death and perversion reign supreme.

This is an incredibly powerful and difficult novel, unlocking mechanisms that enable us to face real evil. How should we feel about books that force us to face distressing subject matters? Aren't we reading for fun and escapism? Being made to confront some of the most repugnant crimes in existence may feel brutal, but Bond handles her subject matter – particularly that of sexual abuse – with an admirable level of frankness and feeling.

Sadness and frustration become a natural part of this rollercoaster ride that will inevitably bear comparison to the monolithic figure of Toni Morrison, who is well known for confronting disturbing topics head-on, particularly in the context of the post-slavery African-American experience. Under Bond's deft pen, Ruby becomes symbolic of the years of abuse and neglect suffered by both her race and gender. Mixed in with elements of hoodoo (see 'Beyond the Book'), Bond has created a terrifying dreamscape.

Those looking to read a feel-good novel might want to skip this one. However, reading through the discomfort is well worth it. This is a brave, poetic and provocative piece of work that will stay with you long after you close its pages. An inspired novel where hope and redemption are, to our relief, still present. Rather upsetting at times for this intrepid reader, but captivating all the same.

Reviewed by Lucy Rock

This review was originally published in May 2014, and has been updated for the February 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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Beyond the Book:
  Hoodoo

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