Singled out by Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and O magazine, Cynthia Bond’s debut novel, Ruby (2014), is a tour-de-force. That a writer can still emerge who isn’t part of the MFA machine is testimony to Bond’s immense gifts.
In 1963, beautiful, black, sophisticated Ruby Bell returns to her all-black, East Texas hometown. She has traveled from Manhattan back to Liberty Township for the funeral of a childhood friend. Her startling beauty and sophistication is an illusion, however. For some time, she has been troubled by a reappearing delusion — a small child who seems to haunt her. During her trip from Manhattan, her hallucinations intensify, and by the time she reaches Liberty Township, she has cracked. For the next eleven years, she lives in increasing squalor in a shack her grandfather had owned. Part of her squalor is the fact she does not interact meaningfully with anyone, part of the squalor is the filth in which this once-gorgeous woman now lives, and part of the squalor is that she does not fight off the men who regularly appear to prostitute her. Her real attention is devoted solely to the haunts who appear to her every night and the fear she has on their behalf — spirit children whom she feels need her protection.
Eleven years into this descent, a man that Ruby also knew as a child, Ephram Jennings, decides he wants to claim Ruby as his own, wants to court her, wants to honor her former beauty, wants to re-establish a childhood connection, or wants to save her — take your pick. They have a connection, he is sure.
Ephram is the kind of man with many things “locked in the storehouse of his soul.” He lives with his sister Celia, the older sister whom he calls Mama, the sister who has taken care of him since they lost both their parents. Their mother was early in their childhood committed to an insane asylum and some years later their father was lynched in the woods. Ephram is a compromised man: he is slow of speech, and although a big man, he is the kind of person people hardly see. Celia had been Ephram’s mother since he was a young child, but unlike most mothers, she cannot let him go.
Like Ephram, Ruby has a terrible past: she never knew her father, her mother abandoned her at three, and she had been given to a white woman who ran a house which trafficked in young girls. Ruby and Ephram are so broken that the King March on Washington might as well have never happened and the Civil Rights Act never been passed.
The violence that lives on in them enslaves them: they live tormented by memories of murder, rape, assault, lynching, abuse, imprisonment and molestation, not to mention run-of-the-mill bullying. The effects of these memories are that Ruby and Ephram have both given up. They are in fact, held prisoner by the past, when ironically, they live in Liberty.
Bond’s purpose seems to be to give life to the idea that love can heal. This is not romantic love so much as it is love that listens, waits, and offers tenderness. Our contemporary belief is that schizophrenia is a disease without cure or hope. In this book, although Ruby lives in a shack on her own land, she is the incarnation of a mentally ill homeless woman: filthy, talking to herself, possessed, screaming, oblivious. She is frightening. One would think she needed to be confined in a hospital. Bond suggests otherwise. She suggests that tenderness might be the answer.
Bond gives us tenderness as a contrast to the abuse Ephram’s mother suffered in the mental hospital to which she was consigned — abuse that might as well have killed her, except that she died, shackled, in a fire. Bond’s vision that tenderness and human love and relationship can mend serious mental illness is refreshing.
I am actually startled, not by the novel’s magical realism, but by this brazen idea that speechless Ephram and crazy Ruby have the power to heal themselves through compassion. Through tenderness. The love scenes between them are unique: in one, they share a cake Ephram has brought as a gift, a cake that has fallen to the ground and broken. In another, spectacular scene, Ephram washes Ruby and combs her filthy, matted hair.
The book is demanding. Its mythic conception allows the novelist to compress a history of violence into the experience of two characters and one town. The level of violence in the book is staggering, and if it were not for the emphasis on the power of compassion, the reader would be lost. Bond uses flashback extensively, and the way she interweaves insanity with the spirit world requires the reader’s attention. She shifts frequently between horror and satire, as if to say — don’t be fooled, violence can appear in daylight in a wig and a hat as easily as it can show up at night bearing a rope and a torch. In addition, she uses a seductively familiar, gorgeous, cool, narrative voice throughout, an effect which is, against the violence, unsettling. (The nature of her voice reminds me of Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried (Mookse review here); one questions the beauty of the voice as set against the violence, but the voice means you do not forget the story.) The combination of flashback with the magical world of haunts, witches, spells and demons makes the negotiation of the plot problematical. No way around it, the book is demanding.
Ultimately, however, Bond continually rewards the reader with her wit, as well as acutely heard dialogue, beautifully imagined wording, and dramatically conceived set pieces, my favorite of which is the children’s encounter with the (benevolent) local witch, Ma Tante. Throughout, Bond is able to keep her readers with her, despite the violence, because of the compassion with which she treats her two main characters and her attention to the growing courage with which they attempt to make their liberty.
The lyric power that Bond brings to every page is immense and original; what it is not is sentimental. The lyric voice is appropriate to her vision of compassion, but the voice is saved from syrup by Bond’s sharp wit.
The novel clearly has its debts to the towering black writers it follows. But its voice is original to Bond. Her use of dialogue and comic scene shine, perhaps due to Bond’s experience as an actress. Her emphasis on compassion and connection as healing arts are perhaps due to work with homeless youth.
Bond seems to be saying, Thank you, Dr. King, thank you, Lyndon, but to be really free, we have to free ourselves from our violent heritage, and compassion is the means.
For a terrific interview with Bond, click here. Bond says that this novel is only one third of what she originally brought to Hogarth press. So I look forward to more from Cynthia Bond.