A white-haired young woman comes to town, and pretty soon, the locals start muttering about witches.
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.
The novel reminded me at times of British 19th-century greats Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, but the way Lawrence Pietroni weaves in folklore and a hint of magic, and the fact that the betrayal of women lies at the heart of the mystery, also calls to mind a Sarah Waters or Toni Morrison. There’s a slow section near the very end, and periodically, a narrator speaks directly to a reader in a way that’s both coy and unnecessary, but these are small flaws in an otherwise mesmerizing debut.
Sewing, stitching, and weaving all are used here to evoke both witchcraft and storytelling – and the pernicious effect of gossip. “Now Dinah’s Glenda was more diligent than any of the Ruths and the Naomis when it came to teasing truth from a tattle. She was agile as a spider and tenacious, working, weaving, and before you knew it she had leaped with what seemed loose and inconclusive and, spinning out a fine and filmy thread behind her, anchored it to what she knew already, creating something orderly and treacherous.”
Take the society of the Ruths and the Naomis, widows who took as their motto (and twisted all out of shape) the following biblical verse: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
Instead, they sit in a circle and nurse their pain – in case it might heal when they weren’t paying attention – and argue about who has suffered the severest loss. “These women, sitting in a circle, tending to their grief and mending where the years had worn it thin.” While they meet, they work intricately embroidered handkerchiefs, “losslinen,” that they hang in trees to remember their dead. Ruby once found her grandmother’s tree, and can’t attend the meetings anymore without thinking back “to all the years of grieving stitched and rippling from a tree.”
What Ruby’s grandmother once said about the local baker could be true of all the local women: “She’d heard Nan Annie say of Dinah that she was the kind who’d always find new pain to nurse. ‘If light was shone in Dinah’s darkest corners, her ud just sew heavy curtains.’ ”
“Ruby’s Spoon” examines the twisting effect of grief and the power of secrets in a tiny community to grow until they crowd out logic and sanity. The resolution to the mystery surrounding Isa’s trip to Cradle Cross is slow in coming, but immensely satisfying. It has less to do with magic than ordinary betrayal, but the mermaids still have their say.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.