RUBY'S SPOON, by Anna Lawrence Pietroni. Spiegel & Grau, 366 pp., $26.
Some novels are written; others are conjured. "Ruby's Spoon," by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, is of the latter kind, and therefore rare, especially for a debut. It's hard to put down and demands a reading experience that's best left uninterrupted from start to finish.
What accounts for the power of "Ruby's Spoon" is tricky to parse. You could begin with its language - the rich, poetic dialect of the industrial Black Country region of 1930s England.
Then there's the intriguing setting: working-class, fictional Cradle Cross, "locked in tight by land, as far from sea as you could be." Isolated physically as well as culturally, filled with the stench of factory smoke and the surrounding canals, Cradle Cross has its own weirdly cloistered, archaic society.
It's a place where "stories were passed 'round, from hand to hand, like teacups." These stories are told by women - family histories and secrets, filling them with a sense of power. Men are peripheral figures, hovering around the edges, largely absent.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of "Ruby's Spoon" is the appealing heroine of its title: 13-year-old Ruby Abel Tailor. Her mother died of influenza when Ruby was 2, and her father has almost no contact with his daughter; he runs a boat-mending business and lives on his boat. Ruby lives with her controlling grandmother and finds a surrogate father in Captin Leonard Salt, of Captin's Fried Fish Shop, where she works on weekends. She's saving up for the boat she dreams will help her escape from her dreary life.
Ruby finds a balm for her boredom and loneliness when an enigmatic woman arrives in Cradle Cross one summer. Isa Fly is a spectral figure, dressed in a scarlet cloak, with "fierce white hair," "skin lambent and unlined," and blind in one "white, white" eye. She's daunting and magnetic.
Motherless Ruby attaches herself like a barnacle to Isa, who is cagey about her past and claims she's come to fulfill her dying father's wish that she track down the half-sister, Lily, whom she has never met.
Also transfixed by the inscrutable Isa are Captin and the Oxford-educated Truda Blick, who inherited the local button factory and comes from a debt-ridden family that owns most of the town.
With typical precision, the author captures how the suspicious women of Cradle Cross respond to the eccentric outsider - "heads together, elbows, hands cupped round hissy whispers." As grievous rumors swirl, Isa is branded a witch. The town nearly erupts in revolt.
Lawrence Pietroni is a masterful storyteller, and her style has an incantatory quality reminiscent of Toni Morrison. Marilynne Robinson's classic "Housekeeping" comes to mind, both for its hypnotic prose and defiant exclusion of men. The narrative's elements of magic realism, and the intensity brimming between Truda and Isa, recall Jeanette Winterson's sly fiction, too.
"Ruby's Spoon" is astonishing in its ambition and scope, deftly exploring themes of guilt, shame, loyalty, grief and revenge, while maintaining its taut suspense throughout.