In February, I was looking for my next book and Ruby by Cynthia Bond kept popping up on lists of “Best Reads for Black History Month” – it was being compared to one of my all time favourites, Beloved by Toni Morrison, so I grabbed a copy and jumped right in. None of the blurbs or reviews had prepared me … Ruby is the most beautifully written and completely disturbing novels I have read in a long time.
The story takes place in a small town in East Texas in the 1950’s and centres around 42 year-old Ruby Bell. Once considered “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at”, the Ruby we first meet has become the local lunatic: she is filthy, half-feral, and living alone in squalor while the whole community looks the other way. On the other side of town, Ephram Jennings is a soft-spoken, sweet-natured man who is overlooked by his neighbours too, just in a different way. Ephram remembers Ruby as the lovely girl she used to be and is the only one willing to see past her madness and offer any real help.
As Ephram and Ruby cautiously reconnect, we learn about the hateful things that have happened in that small town. This is what leads to her mind unraveling, and is where the novel gets really dark and uncomfortable. Racism, exploitation, and human trafficking are at the root of this story, and at times it was overwhelming – so be warned, there are some traumatic moments in Ruby. On the other hand, these are things that actually happen, then and now, and the author based this book on her own family and personal experiences. So while some of it is difficult, I will paraphrase the book itself here and say that if someone is brave enough to live it, the least we can do is listen.
In some ways Ruby is a modern horror story but is also a love story and a tale about finding hope in the smallest, most unexpected places. Tiny moments of courage and kindness keep the narrative afloat and the thing that ties it all together is Cynthia Bond’s exceptional writing – I was hooked from start to finish. Bond plays with themes of oppression and possession in a world bursting with natural and supernatural elements and she has populated this world with fully realized characters that you come to love – or, in some cases, really, really hate. Ruby is an amazing, affecting read and I highly recommend it and it seems Oprah agrees because this was recently selected as her latest Book Club pick! **
What have you read lately that you found inspiring? I’m looking for some lighter fare for spring…