'Ruby,' a Southern woman's haunting story, recalls the works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker

Cynthia Bond's debut novel is often gorgeous and frankly harrowing.

Ruby, by Cynthia Bond, Crown Publishing Group, 352 pp.

In the piney woods of eastern Texas sits Liberty Township, a place of secrets so twisted, they make a mockery of the town's name. No one gets out of Liberty unscathed, not its God-fearing residents, not we the readers, and certainly not Ruby, the eponymous heroine of Cynthia Bond's often gorgeous and frankly harrowing first novel.

We first see Ruby through the eyes of Ephram Jennings, which means we see her through the eyes of love. Ephram lost his heart to little Ruby Bell the moment they met in 1940, he a boy of 11 and she just eight years old. That's three years since Ephram's mother was locked away in a mental hospital after attending Liberty's annual Easter Day picnic while stark naked. It's the year his father, an itinerant preacher, was lynched. And it's the year that Ruby, a beautiful black girl considered so lucky to have been taken in by a white woman in a neighboring town, learned the price of that good fortune was both her body and her soul.

The novel opens in 1974 and finds the adult Ruby descended into madness. "She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered red roads in bare feet. Calluses likeboot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched night."

Ephram, now a middle-aged man, watches as this feral version of the woman he still loves rages through town. He longs to help, but "watch" is the operative word here. Not once, as Ruby's clothes rip to rags, as her language turns to grunts, as she spends her nights literally howling at the sky, does Ephram reach out. As Gubber, one of the group of men who hang out in front of the P&K Market puts it, "Hell, ain't nothing strange when Colored go crazy. Strange is when we don't." So Ephram, like the rest of Liberty, looks on and does nothing. Until now.

On the afternoon that Ruby, in town for her daily handout of free bread, forgets herself so much that she urinates while standing in front of the general store, the gathered men roar with laughter. Ruby comes to, then races away in shame, and something in Ephram breaks free. That night he asks his older sister, Celia, to bake one of her famous angel food cakes.  It's for a sick friend, Ephram tells her, someone he wants to help heal.

The story of that cake, how it gets delivered and how it is received, is at the heart of "Ruby." As Ephram walks the cake across town, the author takes us through the town's history – and Ruby's. Bond moves the tale back and forth through time, to Ruby's brutal childhood of sexual enslavement, to her double-edged success in the glittering salons of 1950s Manhattan, and to her deliberate self-abasement upon her return to Liberty. Bond is a gifted writer, powerful and nimble. Here, fresh from a hard-edged scene of public humiliation, she conjures the world's most delicious dessert, an angel food cake "so sweet it crusted at its crumbling edges, so light little craters of air circled its surface, so moist it was sure, as was always the case, to cling to the spaces between his sister's long three-pronged silver fork."

In a novel webbed with ghosts and magic, with sexism, bigotry, insanity, and abuse, it's tempting to call up Toni Morrison or Alice Walker or Ntozake Shange. It should be done more as compliment than comparison, though: even when she founders into purple prose or stumbles into sentimentality, Bond's is a robustly original voice.

As a storyteller Bond is both fearless and fearsome. Her blunt portrayals of sexual sadism, everyday racism, and backwoods depravity are like a dare – is your empathy great enough, your sympathy strong enough that you won't look away? It's a challenge akin to Ruby's unspoken dare to Ephram: You say you love me? Then take the bitter to find the sweet.

If this all seems to make "Ruby" a tough sell, that depends on what you're looking for. A hopeful book? Ultimately, yes. There's real catharsis and real moments of joy as Ephram enters Ruby's life and deals with her demons – an ordeal that demands he also deal with his own. But an easy book? Not "Ruby." 

Ephram's path from passive watcher to Ruby's champion takes you through deep, dark waters. To pull punches about the tenor of Bond's novel would do a disservice to the author's skill and courage. And for characters as brave and, yes, heroic as Ephram and Ruby, anything less than the plain truth about their story would be a betrayal.

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