Voodoo, faith and racism converge in an East Texas town—particularly within the troubled titular heroine—in this bracing debut novel.
When we first meet Ruby Bell, she’s a symbol of local disgrace: It’s 1974, and a decade earlier she returned to her hometown of Liberty seemingly gone crazy. The local rumor mill (mostly centered around the church) ponders a host of reasons: the lynching of her aunt; her being forced into prostitution as a child; a stint in New York, where she was the rare black woman in a white highbrow literary milieu. The only person who doesn't keep his distance is Ephram, a middle-aged man who braves the town’s mockery and the mad squalor of Ruby’s home to reconnect with her. Bond presents Ruby as a symbol of a century’s worth of abuse toward African-Americans; as one local puts it, “Hell, ain’t nothing strange when Colored go crazy. Strange is when we don’t.” The echoes of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison are clear, but Bond is an accomplished enough writer to work in a variety of modes with skill and insight. She conjures Ruby’s fun-house-mirror mind with harrowing visions of voodoo ceremonies and the ghosts of dead children, yet she also delivers plainspoken descriptions of young Ruby’s experience in a brothel, surrounded by horrid men. And Bond can be sharply funny, satirizing the high-toned sanctimony of Liberty’s churchgoers (especially Ephram’s sister Celia) that’s really a cover for hypocritical pride and fear. Some of the more intense passages of the novel lapse into purple prose, and the horror of Ruby’s experience (which intensifies as the novel moves along) makes her closing redemption feel somewhat pat. But the force of Ruby’s character, and Bond’s capacity to describe it, is undeniable.
A very strong first novel that blends tough realism with the appealing strangeness of a fever dream.