Spooning The Sea

I’d half suspected that I’d have to abandon reading this book, barely a few pages into it, for I couldn’t glide over it’s dialogues effortlessly.

Every few paragraphs, I’d be stranded in the text, slogging through an unfamiliar, arcane British dialect, a lexical terrain where “ar” stands for “yes.” But had my patience run out, I’d have missed a truly excellent novel.

“Ruby’s Spoon,” by Anna Lawrence Pietroni is a powerful mélange of black magic, folklore, mystery, fantasy, family intrigue, and childhood yearning that one’s worth begging for, borrowing, or even stealing a copy. It’s just that wonderful.

A deliciously convoluted yarn, it’s set in the 1930s, in a hot, grimy, sooty, landlocked landscape called Cradle Cross, surrounded by filthy, narrow canals, and gutters, throbbing with the clangor of metalworkers’ anvils and the crackle of hot furnaces.

Filled with lyrical prose, novel metaphors and rich details, it’s a fairy tale for grown-ups.

The arrival of the enigmatic and glib, out-of-towner, Isa Fly, a woman with “salt-white hair” with “strange, unbalanced eyes”–one dark and one white—wearing a skirt “sewn with tiny glinting mirrors like a thousand hungry eyes to snatch up souls,” rouses the drowsy community from its smoggy torpor.

14-year-old Ruby Abel Tailor, motherless, hopelessly fascinated, and charmed by her bizarre charisma, sees her as an omen of her freedom; a conduit to the silvery sea. She’s given a tiny iron spoon, which she wears around her neck as a talisman, as protection against water.

In her thrall, too, is the Oxford-educated, trouser-clad, cigarette-smoking, androgynous Truda Blick, the scion of the Blick’s Button Factory, the town’s prime employer.

The tale snakes through a vast tract encompassing an impaled mermaid, lucky charms to ward off evil spirits, grieving old ladies, a dredger operator, dressed in all-black, and a shipwreck, before climaxing in a most unexpected denouement.

The end strikes one with the luminosity of a dozen, 1,000-watt light bulbs. Ruby succeeds in uniting two separated sisters; returns the spoon to its original owner, to Blackbird, to Belle Severn, to Grace, all of whom are the same individual; and discovers two aunts.

Fundamentally, it’s a story about women. The male characters are peripheral and none too morally righteous. Ruby’s invisible grandfather is a debauch, a debtor, and a defector from his family, whose haphazard procreation wreaks familial havoc.

Running parallel, beneath the surface of the viscous plot, is an amorous bonding between Isa and Truda.

There was a sad song playing in the gramophone—a sad song about happy plots and marriage knots—and they hadn’t heard her coming up the stairs.

Isa, in a cotton shift, stood barefoot at the little kitchen sink, with Truda standing right up close beside her. Truda held the weight of Isa’s hair clear of her neck, and Ruby was puzzled by her rapt study of Isa’s nape, her shoulders. She twisted her spoon on its cord; she was possessed by a need, urgent but inexplicable, to let them know that she was in the room.

From another angle, it’s also a parable of persecution. Ostensibly on a quest to find a missing half-sister, Isa ignites suspicions in the small society. They heap opprobrium on her, frame her for stealing and pillory her as a witch—all because of her odd appearance.

The hoary and wobbly Trembly Em, widely regarded as a niggling simpleton, sets fire to the chip shop, hoping to burn Isa alive.

“Ruby’s Spoon” is not a pedestrian literary product. Voluptuously imaginative and distinctive, it has a grandeur to it that I haven’t found in a book in recent times.

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