Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore
She writes like this:
Joe had watched me eat my usual food without comment, for the first few weeks. He never criticized it, but he brought me into the pleasure world step by step. He’d taught himself everything and then he taught me. I’d been living with half nothing, believing I was lucky if I had a cheese roll for lunch, and the hot water didn’t run out before I had my bath. Joe taught me to go into shops I’d walked past automatically all my life. I went inside and bought wine and flowers and books and music.
One day, to make Joe smile, I wrote out the menus which my adoptive mother fed to us on a two-weekly rotation. I remembered every meal by heart.
Week one, Monday: Corned beef, tinned peas and tinned new potatoes. Strawberry Angel Delight.
Each morning we measured out our cornflakes with an off-white melamine cup. To drink there was hot Ribena, or hot Bovril, or good fresh water from the tap.
The glory of my adoptive mother’s housekeeping was that she was never hostage to the seasons. They filled the boot of their Mazda with tins and packets once a month. She was particular about where the tins came from. Corned beef from Argentina was no good even if it was on special offer. To buy Heinz baked beans was to spend money for the sake of spending money. Only fools bought instant mashed potato, which had no food value compared to the tinned variety.
She taught me that potatoes were waxen and slippery and came ready-peeled, carrots grew in cubes and corned beef had to be warmed under the hot tap to loosen its coat of fat so that it would glop out of the tin. At Christmas we had a Plumrose Ham from a bigger tin. The strip of metal that wound onto the key-opener was so long that it sometimes broke under the tension, slashing a thumb.
Day by day, Joe undid my good housekeeping. I got soil on my fingers, and I sliced up meat which bled. I learned to check the eyes of fish before I bought them, to see if they were full and bright, and then not to look into them again. We picked shot out of pheasants, and I leaned that hares, like horses, have saddles.
Rebecca, not long ago the centre of a happy family, has become the woman that her daughter Ruby’s death has made. Dunmore gives us a glimpse of the richness and warmth that Ruby brought to her parents, Rebecca and Adam. And then she shows us the isolation which Ruby’s death brings to Rebecca, the lack of meaning or purpose which accompanies her. This is a sombre book, though well crafted and not without colour.
Helen Dunmore is a poet and there are moments in the narrative which are overwritten, though generally she knows well how to handle words and make them seem acceptable to us. She is also particularly good on female characters and the minutia of every-day domestic realism. Her men here, Adam and her friend Jo and employer, Mr Damiano, do not really come alive for us, except as accompaniments to our heroine’s experience.
But these things don’t matter too much, because it is Rebecca who is central to the narrative, and it is her who grabs our attention, and to whom we look for a resolving of the story’s tensions.
Annoyingly, Dunmore continuously leads us away from Rebecca’s consciousness with forays into poetry or politics or history or someone else’s story. Not enough to stop us reading the book, but while staying with it I was irritated by the feeling that I was being robbed of whole swathes of Rebecca’s inner life by these sideways leaps into and out of the real world.
Nevertheless, an intelligent and ultimately moving novel.