This is the second debut novel in a row that I have read this month, and I continue to be impressed. I bought Ruby’s Spoon because the author is due to speak at a local meet up group that I attend later this week, and I thought it would be nice to have read the book beforehand.
Set in the Black Country during the 1930’s Ruby’s Spoon is a kind of grown up fairy tale, telling the story of a lonely young girl while weaving together the folklore of witches, mermaids and the local superstitions of the time.
“This is the tale of Ruby Abel Tailor, who could not cross the water but who dreamed of an easy plenty by the sea. This is the tale of three women – one witch, one mermaid and one missing – and how Ruby was caught up in between”
Motherless thirteen year old Ruby lives in Cradle Cross, a working class Black Country community nestling alongside the canal. Ruby is brought up by her grandmother a tough woman who has a morbid terror of Ruby going anywhere near water. Ruby’s absent father lives along the canal on which he works; only noticing Ruby when she delivers him his meals, or fails to. During the long hot summer of 1933 Ruby helping out in Captin’s fish and chip shop, witnesses the arrival of the stranger Isa Fly, brought by the canal, but hailing from the sea that Ruby so longs for.
“The stranger said she had to find a cheap room, just for a night or two. Watching her, sat cautious and unsteady on the edge of Captin’s one-armed sofa that sprouted horsehair around the studs and buttons, Ruby could see what had made her afraid of this woman. She was guarded, Ruby thought, as if she held at bay a secret – jumpy, yappy, like an untrained hound that could leap free and knock the air from Ruby, knock her to the ground. The scarlet cloak, the salt white hair that settled heavy on her shoulder like a pelt – the hair of an old woman on the head of a young soul, for the woman was still young, and her skin lambent and unlined. And more than this, the strange unbalanced eyes – one dark as coal, the other gauzy white. ”
Isa tells a story of her ill father who has sent her to find his other missing daughter, and Ruby decides to help, believing that Isa will take her back to the sea with her when she leaves. Carrying with her, the precious almanac that once belonged to her mother, Ruby lists everything that occurs to her, asking questions of those around her in a bid to help Isa find the person she seeks. In Isa however the locals see everything they fear, and so when Isa allies herself to the other outsider, the button factory owner Truda Cole Blick, their suspicions are really roused. Truda has recently inherited the factory and things are not going well, when Truda starts calling in ancient debts and laying off workers, many see Isa Fly as at the root of their troubles. Ruby finds herself drawn into the sphere of Truda Blick and Isa Fly, running errands for Truda who gives her a bicycle, and trying to unravel the mystery Isa brought with her. Ruby enjoys the friendship and trust of these women, but soon discovers that these alliances bring unexpected dangers with them. Always watching from the water is “The Blackbird” the mysterious boatwoman of Cradle Cross, who operates the dredger along the canal. When things begin to go missing locally, Isa Fly is blamed and things start to take an altogether darker turn as talk of witch thieving begins.
“But 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 hot summer, of 1933, to watch a witch burning.”
Ruby’s Spoon is much more, however, than a dark little fairy tale, it is the story of a young girl in need of mothering, the story of a community, with its suspicions, social structure and poverty, that each play a part in the story of Ruby and Isa Fly. I have to say, I think the writing is glorious, the language of this novel is rich and evocative, creating a wonderful sense of place, and shot through with the unmistakable dialect of the Black Country – a dialect I have a particular fondness for. I have seen some reviews of this novel stating the reader had problems with the dialect – so maybe it helps to know the dialect a bit – but I loved the authentic speech of these characters, it adds a warmth and roundness to the characters, allowing them to emerge, fully fleshed out from the pages.
Ruby’s Spoon is an excellent read, and such an impressive first novel, I really hope that I will get the opportunity to read more from this writer in the future.