I hate expecting great things from a novel but as every page gets turned I feel a little let down. Ruby, not at all what I expected, is Cynthia Bond’s debut novel that explores the life of an African-American woman called Ruby Bell, who has mentally and physically broken down from plenty of neglect and abuse past and present. Ephram Jennings is the man who loves her and has done so since they were children. He’s described as being a simple man. He has never forgotten her. And so the story begins…..
The first 60-70 pages seemed to be fairly uneventful and many characters were being introduced into the story, at times I thought too many. Then things started to happen but it all felt too over the top. Everything seemed to be too intense and at times I questioned some scenes in the novel that I felt were unnecessary. Reading about sexual abuse is hard enough but when it involves children it’s insupportable. There were scenes in Ruby that pushed me to some extremely uncomfortable moments, so uncomfortable that they made me physically ill. I really do question if one scene in particular absolutely needed to be written in the way that it was. After much thought, I’m not convinced it was. Some scenes could have been written in a way that would be more suggestive and I’m sure that would have passed better and given a greater effect to the novel.
Magical realism is used throughout the novel which almost symbolises her insanity from all the abuse Ruby’s been through. At least that was what I thought. There is constant mention of the Obeah and the Dyboù. The Obeah is Igbo religious practice, folk magic, and sorcery. The novel being deep-rooted in religion and voodoo, the magic realism seemed to work really well. Until it seemed that Ruby was actually being possessed by the Dyboù. That’s when I really started to not take that part of the story line as seriously. Not to mention, I couldn’t understand how in such a small town more people didn’t know about this group of prominent church men participating in these voodoo rituals. That was not realistic at all.
The symbolism in the story is strong and consistent. It is the underlying thread that Bond runs through the story as a common denominator. For example one of the most obvious symbols is the name of the town where the story takes place, Liberty. It is a town of total contradiction. It’s a place where no one is really free, They are all locked up slaves to their demons – religion, sex, voodoo, social/racial condition, etc. The colour red is always mentioned – red dust, Red bus, red velvet pouch, red rope, red roses, red beacon,… Red brings text and images to the foreground. It is a colour that intensifies and exudes strength. It also symbolises love. It’s unbelievable but this novel is more a love story than anything else, while at the same time being the story of a woman coming to grips with her demons. (apparently real and metaphorical) The crow can symbolise many things but in Ruby, I felt it symbolised personal transformation and destiny, which refers to both Ruby and Ephram. In order to be able to love Ephram, Ruby must overcome her demons and return to a somewhat normal life, even though it’s clear that Ephram is willing to wait for her. Ephram must break away from his sister/mother to become a real man.
Lastly, the structure of Ruby is overly complex at times and misleading. The main characters’ backstories are narrated towards the second half of the book. They are told as a succession of erratic scenes jumping from past to present, and in the end I felt that took away from the power of the book. It just made things more difficult to piece together. The reader is faced with having to put all of those puzzle pieces together in order for better understanding. For example it took me a while to figure out how much time actually passed in the novel. What tipped me off that the story took place over about twenty years was when I heard Ephram played Killing me Softly for Ruby. I knew that song was sung by Roberta Flack in the early seventies, maybe 1973 and earlier in the novel we know that Ruby goes to New York in the 1950s. Nevertheless, I’m still not sure of Ruby’s age. In spite of everything I disliked about this novel, Bond’s writing is very good, containing some excellent, creative one liners and at times rich descriptions. I rated Ruby 3 stars on Goodreads. It will be interesting to see where Bond moves this poignant, complex love story, which is to be a multigenerational trilogy.