Tag Archives: The Writes of Women

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby by Cynthia Bond was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Fiction prize 2016. It was also selected by Oprah and has been a New York Times bestseller. I feel as if I have read a great deal in novels and in newspapers about brutal and dehumanising behaviour especially towards women and the wretchedness of the lives of those at the bottom of the heap, yet this novel still managed to shock and move me.

253 Ruby cover

The story of Ruby

Ruby Bell was one of the prettiest girls in Liberty, a black township in Texas. She worked for Mrs Barbara when she was young and left for New York in pursuit of her mother. Her light skin enabled her to ‘pass’. She returns to Liberty, and as the years pass she is reviled by everyone for her unconventional and anti-social behaviour. Only Ephram Jennings, who knew her in childhood, wants anything to do with her.

After an incident outside the town store (see below) he decides to take her a gift of cake. Both his untypical assertive behaviour and the approach to Ruby are shocking and surprising to his fellow inhabitants of God-fearing Liberty. Ephram’s sister Celia, who baked the cake, sees Ruby as an instrument of the devil and forces the town to bring her brother back to her.

Ruby has powers to see spirits, especially the ‘haints’ (ghosts) of exploited and misused children. Most terrible is the Dybou, the spirit of Ephram’s father the Reverend Jennings, who introduced Ruby to prostitution when she was 8 years old. Everyone in this novel, female and male, has a tale to tell of abuse, be it lynching, exploitation or rape. The abuse reaches back into the previous generations, such as the story of Otha Jennings’s incarceration in metal hospitals.

The telling of Ruby

The story is told gradually, framed by Ephram’s commitment to Ruby and his attempts to bring decency, humanity and cleanliness to her life. He has to reckon with the judgemental attitude of the people of Liberty, revealed in the opening paragraph.

Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her into a cautionary tale of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town. (3)

Within these few lines we have learned about the closed minds of the people, and of the posturing attitudes that dominate. There is some justification for the people’s suspicions of Ruby.

They had all watched, steadily, as she slipped into madness. Concern, mingled with a secret satisfaction, melted into the creases of their bodies like Vaseline. After a time they barely glanced up from their papers when Ruby walked up to the market. They yawned her existence away, or spit out a wad of tobacco juice to mark her arrival. A low joke might rumble as Miss P handed over her bread, followed by throaty chuckles.

But one end-of-summer day, Ephram Jennings took particular notice. One by one the men on the porch did as well. For instead of walking away with her bread, as she normally did, Ruby didn’t move. Her body rooted to the spot. She stood there, holding the brown sack, hand quivering like a divining rod. And then she peed. A long steady stream that hit the red dust and turned it the colour of brick. She did it absently, with calm disinterest. (5)

What are we to make of a woman, once so pretty, who offends against everyday decent behaviour with so little concern? The reader is being told that Ruby is not an easy person, not an innocent who is helpless in the face of the power of the people and especially of the dominant men of Liberty.

Themes

One of the most powerful, and alarming aspects of this novel is the role played by spirits. In an early scene Ephram recalls a shared childhood experience when Ruby is told by the exotic witch-like older woman, Ma Tante, that she is followed by ‘haints’ – a southern term for spirits or ghosts of lost souls. In adulthood Ruby refers to these as her children, and she counts among them her own aborted child from when she was forced to work as a child prostitute. But the pursuit of Ruby by the Dybou, who inhabits men’s bodies, is shocking.

I do not think that Cynthia Bond was excusing the terrible behaviour of some men by giving evil to this spirit-character, rather she was giving form to the worst behaviour and attitudes that one can imagine. And that it can thrive under cover of a respectable town and a man of the cloth is one of the themes of this book. We should be aware.

253 Cynthia Bond

It has been described as a love story. Ephram is set apart from the other men in Liberty. He is weaker than they are, suffering chronic pain from time to time. Unlike the other men, he has patience and understanding and will bear the derision of the town and the manipulative ways of his own sister in order to support Ruby. He is not especially believable, but he is necessary in the plot to allow Ruby to stand up for herself.

In the denouement of the novel Ruby fights back against the evil Dybou.

“I ain’t yours! I ain’t your whore! I ain’t your nothing!”

She began to push out, with her hands. Her feet stomping hard on the ground. He held on, held on, until Ruby felt the tug, the anchor of the rope that bound them.

She looked at him, the fire of spirit burning through her eyes. She felt the tether weaken.

“I’m not meant for using! I never was! Never was! I ain’t never, never going to be used again!”

She felt the rope burn to cinder. He paused, then flew out of her. He seemed to shake, then fall away, swirling into the shadow of the forest until he became too small for Ruby to see. She sat in this new silence. Felt a new freedom in her bones. (326)

In the calm that follows the departure of the Dybou she recognises that the undemanding attention Ephram gave her has restored a little of her self-respect. That is the love story.

The novel is strong and shocking in its confrontation of abuse. The story-telling is wild and imaginative, with vivid use of imagery and language and wit (such as the name of the township). I could have done without the reading group questions and the recipe for Celia’s cake, but it’s certainly a book worth reading.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond (2015) published by Two Roads. 330pp

253 Baileys-2016-logo

Related posts

The shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 also includes The Green Road by Anne Enright.

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 8th June.

Another enthusiastic review of Ruby can be found on The Writes of Women blog.

Cynthia Bond has a website, which includes details of various organisations that work in North America to help trafficked and other abused women.

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How my TBR pile grows like Topsy

Growing like Topsy – a phrase that means relentless growth. Topsy is a character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin who grew in ignorance of her Maker. I think of Topsy now as I contemplate how I can never reduce my pile of books to be read (TBR or tbr for anyone new to blogging). It just grows, like Topsy.

How do books get added?

Let’s count the ways books get onto the pile. I found six sources. No wonder I make so little impact on it. Read one book from the tbr pile and another two will have been added while I was engrossed. Here they are:

Blog Series

233 Unnecess woman coverEvery two months I read for the next in the series on this blog looking at older women in fiction. I have planned my next read: Rabih Alameddie An Unnecessary Woman and have an idea about the selection for June. And this year I’m joining Heavenali in the #Woolfalong. This will mean reading something by Virginia Woolf every two months and joining on-line discussions. Thinking about a series gives some shape and continuity to my reading, which otherwise becomes merely episodic.

Recommendations

From friends, newspapers, literary journals and from blogs.

Prize Winners

I am a little suspicious of prize winners, having read a few that did not seem to be outstanding. But I usually read the annual Man Booker Prize winner. I am currently struggling through the cornucopia of voices and perpetual violence of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. It is neither brief nor limited to seven killings. But very confident and polished.

And I usually read all the shortlist of the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. We need prizes that promote women’s writing. How could you ignore How to be both by Ali Smith? And I take note of some of the others awards: Samuel Johnson, Fiction Uncovered and Folio Prize.

Books I am sent

The subscription to Peirene was a one of the best Christmas presents I ever gave myself. Three times a year a novella, in translation, appears in my letterbox. Some great reading comes to me this way. The books are beautifully designed and printed on good quality paper. The first was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch – what a good choice for a book group, by the way. The subscription puts me in touch with more foreign fiction.

Occasionally I get offered books for review. Some I don’t accept as they do not appear to be the kind of book I like to read and review. But again, it stretches me at the same time as it disrupts my reading plans as the book often needs to go near the top of the tbr pile to coincide with the publication date.

233 Claxton cover

And friends and family give me books, although my daughter says it’s difficult as I am very picky or I’ve read it. She gave me Claxton by Mark Cocker for Christmas and I’m enjoying dipping into this minutely observed nature writing. It sits in my ‘being read’ pile beside my bed, under the Marlon James.

Reading Groups

Book group choices are another way in which I get required to read books I may not have chosen. Sometimes I read a book I would have been sorry to miss. Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement was one of these. I also read Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, which might have languished near the bottom of the pile if the group had not decided to read it. Some duds here too, but that’s ok.

Occasional events

I add to the pile for specific events, usually ones that I am planning to discuss on the blog. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft is on my list because I have tickets to the Royal Ballet performance in May. I wanted to use Ali Smith’s Public Library collection to celebrate Library Day in February.

Where is this tbr pile?

I don’t possess a Kindle so I have a real pile of books. They are kept in a nook in my bedroom, beside the chimney in the 2 foot thick walls of my cottage. They just about fit. Actually The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is still taking up a great deal of the space, a book that I began, put down and haven’t yet picked up again.

233 TBR shelf

233 tbr fileI also have a large file of bits of paper recoring books of interest. The books get ordered from an on-line bookseller (usually Hive) or reserved at the library.

And I have only been referring to fiction. My non-fiction reading is another growing pile on the coffee table in my sitting room. Another story.

Reading Schedule

I need order in my reading life, and so for the last 18 months I have had a reading schedule. This ensures that books are read before any deadlines and that all books are fitted in sometime.

Related

From Book Riot a post called Dealing with my TBR pile (by not dealing with it) by Yash Kesankurthy in November 2015. She was a little terrified of her tbr pile, but did something about it.

Or you could consider the meme TBR Book Tag. Here’s the contribution from The Writes of Women blog.

An early post from this blog: 5 ways other people decide my reading January 2013.

Who or what are literary prizes for? on Bookword December 2013.

Over to you

How do you manage your tbr pile and your reading schedule? How do you decide which books to add to the list, and then to read? Is it ever in danger of getting out of hand?

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Filed under Books, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf