Monday, June 23, 2014

Confronting Books: Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby, by Cynthia Bond, is an indictment. An indictment of communities, families, and religious groups who turn a blind eye to suffering, abuse, neglect and mental illness. It's also an examination of racism within the African American community. It's an ode to the power of mothers. It's a love story. I had the pleasure of reading this with Heather, and I'm so glad I did. This is the kind of book I needed to discuss throughout the process of reading, and it knocked me on my ass. 

A while back, I posted about Confronting vs. Comforting books. Some books take us out of our comfort zones or put an issue that may unseat us squarely in our face. Ruby was truly a confronting book for me. While it is beautifully, painstakingly written, it's also one of the most violent, brutal, relentless books I've ever read. There is stomach-turning sexual violence and pedophilia, as well as physical and mental abuse. While Cynthia Bond's writing is unique, I saw shades of Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston in this novel. I also saw the grit and violence of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, though in a completely new context. 

Ruby is a story about one woman’s attempt to escape the legacy of violence and sexual predation against blacks, especially fair-skinned blacks who could pass for white, in a small Southern town. Following her mother’s escape, Ruby goes to New York “hoping for a glimpse of the red hair and green eyes of her mother [Random House book jacket copy].”  Ruby finds in New York her voice and a place, but a subsequent return to her East Texas hometown finds her slowly descending into the dark alleyways of her past and into incipient madness. With one’s man’s love, one that had existed since their childhood, she begins, with his help and advocacy, to reclaim herself. (Summary modified from this interview.)

The shorter more straightforward version would be: Ruby is abused from her childhood beginning around the time she was six years old. This colors and shapes every facet of her life, including her descent into madness from the beginning of this book to her rebirth and growing sense of agency at the end. This isn't a spoiler, but it's important to know that through all of the crisis there is hope at the end of this story. I think it's especially important in a book as confronting as this one. 

Ruby is continually taken advantage of by the men of her town, who also happen to dabble in voodoo while they hide behind a mask of religion. The inclusion of a strong supernatural element was a surprise to me, but it allowed Bond to make some sentient points. Through all of the horrible things, Ruby is able to find herself and her will to fight as well as finding a purpose in her life worth fighting for. 

It's so hard to express all that I saw and felt in this book. While it is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, I was so impressed by all of the themes and issues that Bond explored. Mothers are such an immovable force in the protection of children, Ruby herself was laid bare to the evils of the world because of her mother's absence and the violence against her was set in motion by a man no longer held accountable by his wife and the mother of his children. In turn, Ruby became a sort of mother in this book. A protector. A warrior. But it took a lot of defeat to get there. 

While I'm hesitant to research a writer's life and see how it plays in their fiction, it's almost unavoidable in this case. Bond has devoted her career to teaching homeless and at-risk students how to write. How to purge their experience onto paper and let them go. I can't find the interview now, but I was reading a piece wherein she mentions hearing stories from her students similar to the ones in Ruby, and it's just so horrifying to think of anyone enduring abuse and tragedy like this. But they do. Every day. And we can't paint over it or ignore it. That's what this book is all about...being present. Being aware. Being able to listen and advocate for the people we love and the people who need it. 

There's a line in the book that goes something like, "If you lived it, I can listen." That is the heart of Ruby. It seems so simple, but it's a powerful, worthwhile lesson.

Note: Ruby is the first novel in a multi-generational trilogy, and I will read every one.

Pub. Date: April 2014
Publisher: Hogarth
Format: ARC
ISBN: 0804139091
Source: Gifted from a friend.

I couldn't help but do a video review, too!

16 comments:

  1. I loved your review of a book I turned down, unable to confront it right now. So much pain, so much woundedness, in the world. I want to listen. I want to help. I don't want to run away to my comfort at someone else's discomfort.

    Thanks for highlighting this book so beautifully.

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  2. In my review, I'm just going to link to this one and call it a day. Amazing review Andi and you said everything I've been having trouble articulating. God, what a book. I still feel worn out after reading it.

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  3. Such a great review of a wonderful book. Totally agree with Heather; I ended up not being able to wrap all my thoughts into words, but you did a fabulous job. So interesting that it's going to be a trilogy!

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  4. Andi, I am definitely going to read this book. Your review is excellent--it is not always easy to read a book that deals so honestly with human pain.

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  5. Andi, this book sounds like a must-read. I loved your comment about how this book is about being present - those are the important reads and I love those. I can't wait to get my copy of this book now - I'm really looking forward to reading it. I know its not going to be an easy read, but it will definitely be a worthwhile one. Loved this post - thanks!

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  6. Fantastic review! Ruby is currently on its way to me. Though I haven't read this book, there's something about it that reminds me of Cheryl Strayed's essay about being a teacher to at-risk girls.

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  7. Oh God, "If you lived it, I can listen." Yes. YES. That is what so many (most?) confronting books are about.

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  8. I think these are the books we mean when we say that reading teaches us empathy. Reading puts us in another person's shoes and demands that we listen and care. Thanks for your thoughts on this one, Andi.

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  9. Wow, this sounds intense! I'm not sure I'm brave enough to pick this up yet, but I'm slowly expanding my boundaries to include more confronting books. Great review!

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  10. You have me hooked! I am a big fan of books like this - which make me think and which tell a story so powerfully. So will be looking this one up.

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  11. "If you lived it, I can listen" is SUCH a good line. I have this scheduled to read, but I'm nervous about all the violence I know is going to be in it. I will maybe read it very slowly.

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  12. Great review, Andi - this is definitely on my TBR, but I just don't have the energy or extra emotions that I'd need right now for this one. One day, soon.

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  13. Great review, reading it makes me want to read this book. I have to admit I am scared to read it as it sounds intense and emotional, but I think it's one of those books that should be read if the reader can manage through it. I also love that quote in the end, it's beautiful.

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  14. I've been eyeing the books for awhile, sounds like a brilliant read

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  15. Outstanding review, Andi! I'm not sure if I can stomach the subject matter, but the writing sounds worthwhile. I'll bet it's a great book for a book club.

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  16. Your review of Ruby was full of sensitivity and was very well done. I had on the other hand some problems with Ruby. I enjoyed Bond's writing in spite of the fact that it resembled Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and a few other people. Have you had the chance to go watch the live chat I did with Dominique from Token in America and Danielle from OneSmallPaw? Hope you will be coming back with some videos soon. Are you still interested in doing a read-a-long of The Goldfinch?

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