Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spoonful of crazy.


I think writing in vernacular (or 'dialect' for the more precious amongst us) is one of the hardest things to do, and do well. Dialogue is always tricky, vernacular the trickiest of all, so Anna Lawrence Pietroni deserves props for her skillful use of a particularly thorny type of vernacular in her first novel, Ruby's Spoon.

Ruby's Spoon is a novel that is very much of its setting. It takes place in the isolated, stinking, and superstitious English town of Cradle Cross, which is a geographical anomaly - an inland island. Cradle Cross is surrounded by a channel full of sewage, mud, dead fish, industrial waste, and other bits and bobs, kept clear by a mysterious woman nicknamed the Blackbird, who pilots a dredger and scoops the detritus from the channel.

Cradle Cross' existence is dependent on its two factories; a nail and chain smelter and a button factory called Blick's, which employs the majority of the Cruxers and is on the verge of going under. Cradle Cross is also drowning under the weight of its own grief - many of the town's families have lost sons and husbands in the War; accidents on the channels and in the factories are common; and Cradle Cross' isolation makes it a place prone to vicious gossip, twisted loyalties, and inescapable sadness. The only spot of reliable humanity comes from the town's sorors, who operate a convent (which is in itself kind of weird - the last place I would look for actual charity in this kind of town would be the convent).

Into this morass comes Isa Fly, a mysterious one-eyed, white-haired woman from Severnsea searching for a lost half-sister from whom her dying father hopes to wrest redemption for abandoning years ago. Isa is aided by the titular Ruby, a somewhat orphan who lives with her neurotic, overprotective grandmother. Ruby, whose mother and sister drowned in a ferry accident and whose father refuses to leave his workshop, is desperate for affection and a way out of Cradle Cross and falls hard for Isa, although her alliance with the unsettling stranger quickly alienates her to the rest of the town.

Isa's return begins uprooting old grievances and wounds as Cradle Cross continues to founder, and she (and Ruby, by association) quickly earn the town's emnity, with disastrous results.

Pietroni is skilled at conjuring up the stench of Cradle Cross' channels, slaughterhouses, and slag heaps, and does a remarkably competent job at navigating the heavy brogue the inhabitants of Cradle Cross speak. Isa's appeal to Ruby is easy enough to understand, but her attraction to Ruby's employer/father figure, Captain, and the inheritor of Blick's, Truda, is harder to figure.

Pietroni's determined weirdness does get grating at times, especially as the oddly named places (Deadarm, the Cut), idiosyncratic people (Em "Trembly Em" Fine-knee Bacon; Annie Nailor Tailer; Belle "Blackbird" Severn), and anachronistic habits (witch-bottles, sewing losslinen, and yammering on about 'merymaids') start to mount up (we get it! Cradle Cross is weird and stinky, its inhabitants are superstitious and backwards, and only anyone who wants to get out has any sense - stop hitting me over the head with it).

In a way, Ruby's Spoon is a love story disguised by creepy atmospherics and eccentric characters, but Pietroni has created a nifty, creepy little world in Cradle Cross, and her tough but lonely Ruby makes an appealing heroine.

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