Ruby by Cynthia Bond
How surprised was I to hear earlier this month that Oprah’s latest Book Club 2.0 pick just happened to be on my iPod! I suppose the fact that I always have no fewer than a couple dozen books on my phone at all times makes the odds less slim, but still I was rather tickled to have such instant access. So, of course, I hit ‘play’ almost immediately and finished the 11.5 hours quickly (helps to have endless moving boxes to mindlessly unpack). In spite of that initial alacrity, I’ve needed these weeks of distance to actually set thoughts to the screen … author Cynthia Bond herself narrates, which makes her debut that much more immediate … and, that much more relentless.
Like (too) many of Oprah’s anointed picks (since 1996, 70 titles total in the original incarnation; since 2012, four in 2.0 mode), Ruby exudes abuse and misery. [I haven’t parsed the exact numbers, but flipping through the 74 titles, many, many are immediately recognizable as narratives of death and/or destruction.] Southern suffering seems to be a recurring theme, and Ruby fits right in – her novel takes place mostly in a small East Texas town. That Bond reveals in a Q&A on her website the many autobiographical elements she used in Ruby – “scars,” “murdered,” “dehumanization,” “victim,” “horror,” “rage,” “torment” – enhances the unbearable truth of Bond’s fiction. As gorgeously arranged as her words, phrases, sentences are, no letters in any formations can mask the terror within.
For all of his 45 years, Ephram Jennings has lived a life someone else has dictated: first his father, and then his sister who he calls Mama since losing their mother to a mental hospital decades earlier. When the one woman he’s never stopped loving returns to their hometown – ironically, tragically named Liberty – he’s finally determined to claim his independence to be with Ruby. The once lively, exquisitely beautiful girl is an unrecognizable, tormented woman who left Liberty to escape all that destroyed the rest of her family, only to come home to the same exploitation and injustice. Liberty’s men continue to debase her, the women judge and condemn her; only Ephram intends to save her.
The past Ruby inherits is filled with violence, gore, and utter inhumanity: America’s racist history is laid wholly bare here. Ruby’s own story begins in brutality and never abates: the life she will live – at least in these pages – barely rises above excruciatingly wretched. She’s initiated into horror as a little girl amidst monstrous men of God in a ritual so heinous as to induce insanity in an unintended spectator. Her adolescence is spent trapped in underage trafficking as she’s sold to murderous men, setting in motion an adulthood defined by manipulation and degradation. She carries with her the tortured souls of not only those she has lost, but the souls of all the motherless children who have no one else to cling to. Not even the dead, however, refrain from desecrating her weakening body.
Bond, who took 10 years to write this book, was 53 when it hit shelves in April 2014. In the past few weeks, surely she’s already found that those who bypassed Ruby last year are now returning in multiplying throngs as Oprah-obeying consumers. To track what percentage of those ready book-buyers become fully committed readers to the final pages might be interesting data to someday examine.
Literature clearly provides a means to bear witness to tragedies, and even inspire demands for change, improvement, solutions. That said, at what point can bearing witness tip into voyeurism? At what point does relentlessness devolve into shutting down and turning away? Where Ruby falls on that spectrum is not for me to determine; I can only confess that yes, I regret reading Ruby to the very end. It joins a growing number of exceptional titles on my ‘regret list’ … because once seen, un-seeing is impossible. Given her dexterity with language, Bond can conjure images as well as any camera – her words, actually, have greater power to linger, to haunt. For those yet to begin, use caution: read at great risk.