RUBY, a powerful and disturbing debut novel from Cynthia Bond, opens with kindhearted Ephram Jennings asking his sister Celia to bake him a white angel food cake to take to a sick friend. The sick friend turns out to be Ruby Bell, who lives on Bell land, all the way on the other side of town. Now 47, Ephram has known and loved Ruby from childhood. He fondly remembers her as “the sweet little girl with long braids. The kind of pretty it hurt to look at, like candy on a sore tooth.” Ruby is currently in her early 40s, and since her return 11 years earlier to her hometown of Liberty, Ephram has watched her steadily slip into madness. She now walks into town with her “hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of legs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.”
"Cynthia Bond expertly weaves an atmospheric and haunting tale, told in rich and poetic language.... RUBY marks the arrival of a talented new writer."
Long considered the town whore, Ruby is used by the town’s men and shunned by the town’s women. No one other than Miss P, the owner of the P&K Market, shows her any mercy or kindness. She always gives Ruby food to eat, and for 11 years Ephram has watched: “Every day he wanted nothing more than to put each tired sole in his wide wooden tub, brush them both in warm soapy water, cream them with sweet oil, and lanoline and then lip her feet, one by one into a pair of red-heel socks.” Ephram sees Ruby not as the crazy town whore, but as his soul mate, and the day he asks Celia to bake him the cake for her is the day he decides to leave his predictable life behind and help Ruby start to heal from a life filled with horrific mental and physical abuse.
The ghosts from Ruby’s past are many, starting with the mother whose abandonment of her as a child leads Ruby to being sold into a life of prostitution, working at a brothel run by Ms. Barbara, a white woman in a neighboring town. Eventually, Ruby flees Texas for New York City, where she hopes to one day find her mother. A telegram from her cousin Maggie brings her back home to Liberty, and slowly the memories of her devastating and violent childhood unravel. Madness overtakes her.
As the son of Reverend and Otha Jennings, Ephram has endured his own quiet pain. At the age of eight, his beloved mother is committed to an insane asylum, where she is mistreated and tested like a guinea pig, eventually dying in a fire. Shortly thereafter, his physically abusive father is lynched, leaving Ephram to be raised by his god-fearing and overbearing sister.
Ephram and Ruby find happiness together, but it is short-lived. A tangled web of lies and violence connects and corrupts everyone in Liberty, and led by Celia, they conspire to reclaim Ephram’s soul from Ruby. Interspersed throughout the novel are many spiritual elements, including a dybou, an evil spirit that haunts Ruby; the crow, her childhood friend and protector; and the “haints,” the souls of murdered children to whom Ruby lovingly tends.
Cynthia Bond expertly weaves an atmospheric and haunting tale, told in rich and poetic language. Here are two particularly lovely sentences: "She felt a thousand lavender flowers erupting from the edges of her fingers. She felt them playing a delicious melody that scented the wind and called striped bees and hummingbirds.” RUBY marks the arrival of a talented new writer.
Reviewed by Jennifer Romanello on May 2, 2014