In her debut novel, Cynthia Bond creates a vibrant chorus of voices united by a common struggle against what her characters refer to as “the Lonely.” Drawing heavily from the gritty surrealism of Toni Morrison, Bond paints a vivid portrait of life in the all-black East Texas township of Liberty, a place replete with characters who rage against—and occasionally embrace—an all-consuming loneliness born from lifetimes of labor and tragedy. In Beloved, Morrison deftly articulates the experience of Bond’s characters:
There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.
The title character of Bond’s novel is drawn to this second loneliness, an emptiness that she fills by welcoming the souls of lost and murdered children into her body. Ruby, who returns to her childhood hometown of Liberty after years of living as an artists’ muse and occasional prostitute in New York, is considered a madwoman by the same men who had coveted her when she was a young and beautiful girl. When Ruby returns to Liberty following the death of her cousin, she quickly becomes inhabited by the old ghosts that had plagued her as a child, and she wallows in the Lonely.
As Ruby’s condition escalates and she increasingly withdraws from reality, Ephram Jennings sets out on a small-town odyssey to reach her. Ephram is a middle-aged man who lives with his devout sister Celia, and has loved Ruby since he met her as a child, when they both found themselves in the gruesome and vividly rendered house of the town witchdoctor. The first eighty pages slide from Ephram’s past recollections of Ruby to his present-day journey across town to see the haunted woman she has become. Gradually, Bond shifts to Ruby’s experiences in New York, and her transformation from an elegant society woman to a character tormented by ghosts.
Throughout Ruby, Bond explores her characters in relation to the traumas of their past. Ephram and his sister Celia have become respectable but pitied figures following the lynching of their father and public madness of their mother, while Ruby not only is haunted by the violence suffered by her mother—Ruby is the product of a violent rape by a white man—but also becomes a willing conduit for the spirits of murdered children. By allowing the souls of these children to inhabit her womb, Ruby sacrifices her sanity and social position in favor of nurturing the past. Bond examines the consequences of her characters’ loyalty not only to their own pasts, but also to the suffering of others. Ruby’s redemption is contingent on Ephram’s ability to surmount the hurdles set up by his sister Celia, who has also devoted her life to paying penance for her parents’ failures.
While the prose’s lyricism and Ruby’s interaction with the dead call to mind Beloved, Bond departs from Morrison in her fully realized portrayals of life’s daily struggles. Bond’s dark and fantastic accounts of Ruby’s ghost children—which she allows into her womb until they are ready to be birthed and then buried in the field behind her house—is cut with a brand of storytelling that is deeply traditional, expositional, and straight-forward. Of Ruby’s cousin Maggie, a woman once famous for beating men in fights, but worn from years of housework and submission to her employers, Bond writes: “Ruby watched her join the army of Black folks dragging off to Newton, their souls crumpled in their handkerchiefs until suppertime. And while Maggie didn’t droop her head as much as the rest, still it fell a bit to fit through the door of servitude.” Bond also inhabits a detached storytelling voice when relating Ruby’s experiences in New York, where she swings between elite Greenwich Village parties and sordid prostitution: “The year was 1950, when the town’s literati adorned themselves in token colorful accessories. Ruby had been a bright bangle on the arm of one of their esteemed patrons. But that came later; first Ruby had to kneel at the city’s gate and decide what she would sacrifice for admittance. Her culpability had been an easy one.”
When Ruby returns to Liberty, she loses the confidence, elegance, and authority that she had gained by mingling with famous artists and writers in New York. (A cocktail party interaction with the writer James Baldwin is especially dazzling.) Bond’s tone is elastic—it modulates to address the elements of the fantastic in Ruby’s life, shifting between a distant storytelling voice and haunting descriptions the ghosts who surround Liberty: “The reaching pines knew that there were legions of spirits tromping through their woods, trapped in thick underbrush, bound beneath the crisscross of branches […] where sunlight never hit the earth. Some haints were still hanging from the tree they’d been lynched on. Some let the wind roll them like tumbleweeds from one side of the woods to the other.”
While Bond’s characters may sense the inevitability of loss and loneliness, they are also driven by something else, a timid hopefulness that they may find serenity and compassion amid the ghosts who haunt them. While Ruby does not shy away from vivid renderings of violence and injustice, Bond ultimately suggests that both Ephram and Ruby will be able to save each other, and to embrace and be faithful to the past without allowing it to consume them.