Cynthia Bond is a lyrical writer with a gift for crafting beautiful language. I would love to read another book by her, but only if it nothing like Ruby. I nearly quit half way through and then, having resolved to finish it, I could not be done with it soon enough. The contrast between the beauty of her prose and the ugliness of the novel made the ugliness even worse.
It makes sense this is an Oprah book club choice. Oprah likes books about women and children who are abused and raped. This must be her favorite book ever because I have never read such an unrelentingly grim novel. This book wins the rape, incest and pedophilia olympics.
Ruby is a feral woman living in filth on her family’s land. Ephraim is the sincere man who loves her, has always loved her despite her degradation. Can love conquer all? It is doubtful, since the person Ruby loves most of all is long dead. Ruby does have a great capacity for love, but her love is spent on the dead.
The story takes place in the environs of the ironically named township of Liberty, an abject African American rural community in Texas, made even more abject by oppressive power of religion, both Christian and Vodou. It also takes place during the 1960s and 70s, though it feels as though it is out of time. It never really feels like it is really the 70s, despite a reference to Roberta Flack.
Racism, of course, plays a role, but it is in the background. White people are not really part of the story, though it is likely that many of the pathologies that warp this community are rooted the powerlessness and suffering of people under the yoke of racism.
But really, this is a novel about the evil men do and in the entire story there is one decent male character. The rest are rapists or rapist enablers. It is also about the evil women allow, blaming the victims of rape and abuse. The only decent women in the story go mad or die.
So, is there anything redeeming? Cynthia Bond, in the end, suggests that love conquers some, maybe, and that we need self-respect to have any control in our lives. There is hope, fragile and unrealistic hope. Hope that I am certain will be crushed before the sun sets on the the last day of the novel.
I wonder why so many of the critically acclaimed books by black women are about abuse and rape? It is kind of like the black women who get nominated for Oscars, victims of rape, of child abuse, of domestic violence, and maids. Is there some atavistic demand that black women write about victimized women for their work to be lifted up and honored?
I cannot recommend this book. It is unrelentingly grim. It is a novel that feeds despair. There is so much attention and detail about the many, many rapes that it feels like rape pornography, particularly when rape is being described with beautiful prose.