This is a book that promises much. Comparisons to Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Guardian) and Alice Walker (Barnes and Noble Review) mean that you cannot come to this book without certain expectations. I was not disappointed. It did remind me very much of Beloved in particular, through haunting lyrical prose, hatred and violence, and the weaving of stories shared by the people of Liberty.
This book is about Ruby Bell and the town of Liberty Township, East Texas. It is her story and that of Ephram Jennings, who fell in love with Ruby as a child. Years later they are both in middle age, he living a lonely bachelor life with his devout sister, Celia; Ruby ostracised since she came back from New York City a decade earlier and let her past destroy her. When Ruby hits rock bottom it shakes Ephram from his unsatisfactory life and he sets out on a determined path to bring her back, though his sister rallies the town and decides that the devil must have tempted him away from her controlling influence.
There is witchcraft woven throughout this book, magic realism that could be real magic or just a figment of Ruby’s fractured mind. There are haints, the ghosts of the dead children of Liberty, and the Dybou, an evil spirit who pursues Ruby, sometimes forcing himself into the body of a living man in order to cause harm. It is an examination of the guilt that Ruby, as a victim, suffers for not being able to save those who didn’t survive the abuse that somehow didn’t kill her. Compared to the goings on at the local In-His-Name Holiness Church, the magic doesn’t seem any less plausible than the tall tales and speaking in tongues that is expected from the true believers.
The devastating violence that made Ruby flee to New York is slowly told through flashbacks that take your breath away with their sadistic violence. We all know about Operation Yewtree etc. but it is still shocking to think that the people we trust with our children can commit such crimes against them. There are scenes that some might find upsetting, and they are told with skill, bleak but with a truth because the author has not held back, nor gone too far. These are tricky issues and I commend Bond for being able to write some very difficult chapters; allowing a sense of foreboding to grow gradually before unveiling some truly horrific acts.
This not an easy book to read but it is a story that has hope, not only through the love story of Ephram and Ruby, but in the interview with Cynthia Bond in this edition which talks about being a victim of human trafficking as a child, and how picking up pen and paper helped her. This is a powerful book and although probably not the favourite for the Baileys Prize it would be a worthy winner.