Ruby by Cynthia Bond, Reviewed by Bree Barton
Cynthia Bond’s debut novel, Ruby, begins with a simple walk. Ephram Jennings is taking a cake to the woman he loves. After several false starts, he begins his walk through Liberty Township, and it takes him the bulk of the book to arrive at Ruby Bell’s front door.
As Ephram walks, the novel unfolds in various directions, fluidly shifting between POVs and spanning several decades. We discover more about Ephram’s past and Ruby’s history, and the many ways the two are connected. Both characters are victims in a sadistic tapestry of violence, lust, power, and shame. We also understand why Ephram must get the cake to Ruby. The walk is far more than a neighborly gesture: it’s life-or-death. The forces conspiring against Ephram and Ruby—from the flesh-and-blood rapists to the evil spirits haunting them from beyond the grave—are the same forces that have made Ruby’s life a living hell. As the flap copy attests, she has “suffered beyond imagining.” Ephram has watched that suffering push her into madness, and he loves her all the same.
I’ll admit my own experience reading Ruby bore some resemblance to Ephram’s walk. I had several false starts before the story “caught” for me. The reason I persisted was the language, which is sensual and extraordinary. It’s clear from the first few pages Bond is a stunning wordsmith, the way Ruby’s arms “[swayed] like a loose screen, her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm” (3). And how, for the good folk of Liberty, “concern, mingled with a secret satisfaction, melted into the creases of their bodies like Vaseline” (5). Even when Ruby urinates on herself in public, the language is elevated to poetry: “A long, steady stream hit the red dust and turned it the color of brick . . . Surprise flowered on her face, then fell away leaving a spreading red shame” (5). For me, reading sentences so artful is a delicious treat, like sinking my teeth into a slice of white lay angel cake. So why couldn’t I step fully into the story?
We read literature to expose ourselves to worlds we might never access otherwise. But we also cast about for something familiar, a way to find purchase in uncharted waters. The real reason I nearly gave up on Ruby, twice, was that I was cowed by the disparity between this world and mine. At the beginning of the novel, the year is 1974. We are in a provincial town in East Texas. But most of all: the characters are black.
As a white person of privilege who believes unequivocally that #BlackLivesMatter, I’m embarrassed I almost tossed Ruby aside. No, worse than embarrassed: I’m ashamed. Was I saying books about black lives didn’t matter? To even be in a place where it’s possible to say “I was cowed by the disparity between this world and mine” smacks of privilege. And instead of acknowledging the fact that black people inhabit a very different world than the one I enjoy, I used my privilege to widen the gap. No matter if Ruby and Ephram were fictional characters: they weren’t like me. They were Other, and I wasn’t sure I could get into Other. It was just so hard.
But I kept reading. The richly layered histories and idiosyncrasies of these characters had crept under my skin, seeping into my subconscious like a haint. Once I started reading Ruby a third time, I couldn’t stop. I began while sitting in my car outside my therapist’s office; four hours and one café later, I finished the book while sitting on my kitchen floor. I closed Ruby, pressed my back against the wall, and wept.
And then I did something curious. I texted one of my dearest friends: “I just read Ruby. I want to give it the highest recommendation but I also don’t think I can recommend it to anyone. It was the most beautiful book I’ve read in ages, with language that was absolutely explosive. It also had content that was harder than anything I’ve ever read. I feel physically ill. There is stuff that happens I will never forget, and wish it weren’t in my head. Rape. Rape. Rape. Rape. Horrible things done to women. Horrible things done to children. Six-year-old girls raped and murdered. Rape. Murder. Rape.”
I should note here that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. So while I’m conflicted about the merits of “trigger warnings” preceding a work of art—an important discussion that far exceeds the purview of this review—Ruby was definitely triggering for me. And because my friend is a survivor of rape, I felt it only fair to share with her my true experience of reading the book.
“I’m not sure I’m glad I read it,” I told her. “I mean, the painful thing is that I think maybe it’s good I read it. The horrors that were (and still are) enacted against women, especially young black women during the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, are exactly that: horrors. I think maybe it’s a very good thing Bond wrote this book, and it’s an important book for people to read, and I probably shouldn’t have been one of them.”
Eight days after I sent that text, a man walked into a church in Charleston and started shooting. Nine people died. Six of them were women. All of them were black.
In an excellent article in The New Republic published after the attack, Australian-American writer Chloe Angywal called white women to account:
That we are victims of sexism does not erase our culpability in American racism . . . When contemporary black feminists critique white feminists for failing to recognize, interrogate, and cede their own racial privilege, that complaint is rooted in history. The bonds of sisterhood can be strong, but too often, they have been weakened by some sisters’ willingness to continue benefitting from whiteness (or worse, their stubborn refusal to recognize that they do).
I benefit from whiteness. I benefit from it every day. But it’s a rare day in which I realize it. After I read Ruby and cried on my kitchen floor, I took a Klonopin. I thought, “Ugh, how awful, the things that happened to black women in this story—and in real life, too.” And then I got on with my day. After the initial shock of the book wore off, I didn’t even pause to consider my own privilege. That’s the definition of privilege: it’s so inherent, most of the time we don’t even know it’s there.
My own abuse ended over twenty-five years ago. My mother went bankrupt paying off the lawyers who protected us from my father. But she also enjoyed privilege in ways I will never know: privilege from the court system, in how she was treated by our community, in her access to resources and support. In the midst of a dark time, my single white mom benefited from a racial privilege not available to single black moms in similar situations. Whether she knew it or not, my mother was in possession of what Angywal calls “the power gifted to us by the color of our skin.”
Two and a half months after reading Ruby, I stand by much of what I said in those texts to my friend. The language is some of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. The content—the events of both Ruby’s girlhood and her womanhood, and of so many other female characters she knew and loved—is some of the most gruesome I’ve ever read. The choice to pair such exquisite language with such unspeakable savagery is daring, and it’s also astoundingly generous. This is one of Bond’s great gifts to the reader: the sheer art of the writing offers a glimmer of redemption to the human evils it describes. Despite the horrors they have witnessed, Ephram—and at some point, Ruby—still see beauty in their world.
I maintain this is an important book for people to read. What I no longer believe is that I shouldn’t be one of them. I’m glad I read the novel, even if it was hard, even if it was painful. The world of Ruby is Other—and until I sit with that fact, until I acknowledge its truth, I will never see past my whiteness. I won’t be able to walk beyond my own privilege to meet those on the other side. And believe me when I say: this walk is worth every step.
Angyal, Chloe. “I Don’t Want to Be an Excuse for Racist Violence Anymore.” The New Republic Magazine. 22 June 2015. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.
Bond, Cynthia. Ruby. New York: Hogarth/Random House, 2014. Print.