This is certainly not an easy novel to read- the ritual animal sacrifices, lynching, suffering, sex trafficking, child abuse, incest and misery. The novel’s two main characters, Ephram Jennings and Ruby Bell meet once, right at the beginning, when they are about seven and six. It’s a memorable but traumatic meeting- Ephram is beaten to a pulp, Ruby is subjected to a sort of rustic exorcism behind the closed door of a witch-like forest dwelling voodoo woman, Ma Tante. Bruised and bloodied by the boyish Margaret, Ruby’s cousin and sole protector, Eprham will never forget Ruby’s beauty or her braids, and will carry this image of her for the rest of his life. Ephram catches one or two glimpses of Ruby over the next decade in church and in the town, but their paths do not cross again until Ruby returns from New York after 13 years away.
Raised by his sister after his mother went crazy and his preacher father was lynched by white men, Ephram begins as a pious, routine abiding character. Bagging groceries at the market, handing all his wages over to his domineering, coddling and manipulative sister, Celia his ‘mama’ since he was 14. Her only aspiration in life is to become the Church Mother, something that was almost a given until Ephram took the notion to spoil everything.
Ruby escapes Liberty to New York in an attempt to re-invent herself and for a chance to find the light-skinned mother who abandoned her as a baby. It’s unclear initially just what horrors Ruby is truly escaping; her childhood will be revealed to Ephram via flashbacks as the novel progresses. New York seems exciting, glamorous, seedy. It’s the closest thing to equality available to “coloured” folks in 1950s America. It’s not much different for Ruby though- she resorts to the same skillset as she’s always used to survive, detaching her mind from her body whilst it does not belong to her.
Upon her return, accent slightly lost, her first lost spirit in tow, judgemental stares from the townspeople redoubled, Ruby spends another 11 years slowly going crazy. Avoided and derided by the community, she talks to spirits, lives alone on her family’s land, filthy and detached, just wandering the woods and wailing. We later learn that the spirits she obsesses over, hundreds of them, are the lost souls of the murdered children that wander the Piney Woods. One of the worst part of Ruby’s story is that she is by no means the only person to have been used in such a way. She soothes their pain and gives them shelter in her battered body.
The people of Liberty Township, the devout, church-going community, seem to view Ruby’s troubled mind as inevitable recompense for what they see as waywardness, her sinfulness, her unusually pretty face. She’s brought it on herself. What the township chooses to turn its blind eyes away from is incredible. The injustice of it is so frustrating- the men and boys that have abused her and taken advantage for decades condemn her for her wickedness. The book’s most powerful point is the things that happen under our noses that we choose to ignore.
If the reader’s heart breaks for Ruby from the beginning; they are thoroughly ruined by the end. As Ruby becomes more lucid, as Ephram diligently coaxes her back from her spirits and her torment, she fills in the gaps of her life with horrific details. We learn that the ‘boarding school’ that Ruby was sent to work at is nothing more than a brothel, that she has been passed from pillar to post ever since that first meeting in the woods. Various lynchings, escapes and desertions within her family left her without an adequate carer and she fell into the evil, horrific hands of the very people that would be expected to save her. The author makes a powerful point about evil being something that can occur anywhere- literally anywhere without exception. Evil is a powerful and uncontrollable thing, which is made all the more surprising by the ease with which it can be hidden.
Ruby is a beautifully written book, full of a kind of old, trickster magic, evil spirits and the horrific weight of history. But it’s also about patience and kindness, and about tackling injustice, no matter how insurmountable it seems, or how ill-equipped one is to do it. I loved the quiet diligence of Ephram, as he acts on the feelings he has harboured for decades. He cleans Ruby’s house, washes her clothes. Painstakingly and lovingly washes her hair. He listens to things that she has lived, things that she has bottled up all her life. He treats her like a person again, and Ruby doesn't know how to act. Her behaviour is so divorced from her feelings, she has literally no idea how to be act when shown kindness. I liked that there are still good people, who will still do selfless things, even if it is years overdue.
I know I haven’t really done justice to this book- I could never get across the depth of its effect on me. It’s a haunting book that tells the story of a life of such unimaginable cruelty and dehumanisation. It’s shocking and raw and brutal, told in a style of prose that is disarmingly beautiful. I can see this willing the Bailey’s Prize this year (and it would be a well deserved victory)for its honesty, its lyrical prose and its brilliantly crafted mysticism. It would be easy, with a plot so laden with misery and trauma to become melodrama, but the characters are so balanced and so well realised that this never happens. An incredible novel.