Mystery, betrayal, folklore, and a hint of magic work together in this enchanting debut novel set in 1930s England.
A white-haired young woman comes to town, and pretty soon, the locals start muttering about witches.Skip to next paragraph
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It sounds like the setup for a medieval mystery, but the atmospheric and entrancing Ruby’s Spoon is set in more prosaic 1930s England. The town of Cradle Cross – home to buttonmakers, canal folk, and more than its share of widows – is bounded by canals, grief, and superstition.
Twelve-year-old Ruby Abel Tailor is held prisoner by these: trapped as surely as any princess in a tower. Her dour, bad-tempered grandmother lost her husband and baby in a boat accident, and Annie has forbade Ruby to go near the water, or even cross the canals that surround Cradle Cross. Her father, a boat repairer, works on the island in the center of these, and while Ruby sees him every day, she can’t go across the water to him, and he won’t come to her.
Lonely Ruby dreams of the sea as she serves as a dogsbody to everyone in town, helping Captin Salt in his fish-and-chip shop every night and setting up and serving tea at the weekly meetings of the Ruths and the Naomis society. (But more on them later.)
Then one day Isa Fly, half-blind and with white hair, comes to town, claiming that her dying father, Moonie, sent her to find his long-lost daughter. “This is the tale of three women – one witch, one mermaid and one missing – and how Ruby was caught up in between,” Anna Lawrence Pietroni intones in her prologue. Part of the mystery is the identity of each woman, and how their secrets lead to a conflagration. “Even here in Cradle Cross where the streets breathed fire, they never thought they’d gather in Horn Lane at the dead end of that long scorched summer, 1933, to watch a witch burning.”
The townsfolk don’t trust Isa’s appearance or her motives, but Ruby is caught as surely as a fish in a net. Other people also fall under Isa’s spell, including the good Captain and the cynical Truda Blick, who just inherited the button factory and all its debts.
Lawrence Pietroni knows her territory as thoroughly as Ruby, and she has created an evocative fairy tale that slowly pulls a reader under as surely as one of the mermaids the locals tell legends about. (In her author biography, Lawrence Pietroni says that she worked for several years as a warden at British prisons at Wormwood Scrubs and Holloway, and she uses that understanding of closed societies and the power they can wield to great effect.)
The Black Country English dialect her characters speak takes some getting used to, but it’s more than showboating. Lawrence Pietroni is able to conjure an entire lost world through their words, and the writing of “Ruby’s Spoon” is one of its chief pleasures.