In her debut novel Ruby’s Spoon, Anna Lawrence Pietroni tells the story of thirteen-year-old Ruby Tailor, an orphan living in the industrial town of Cradle Cross, England in the blighted and confused years after the Great War. Ruby works at a fish and chip shop run by her ersatz father-figure, Captin, and although she’s happy, she dreams of escaping across water. Enter the alien and alluring Isa Fly, an old (or maybe not-so-old) woman who arrives unbidden to Cradle Cross late one night and immediately charms both Captin and Ruby. Ruby and Isa are soon drawn to Truda Blick, an over-educated, under-loved heiress whose button factory is crumbling into decline. Ruby, Captin, and Truda are the minority in their welcoming of Isa, however, and as her visit to Cross Cradle continues, her odd demeanor–and other factors–cause her to be labeled a witch. Climax ensues.
Lawrence Pietroni’s tale evokes Dickensian grime and magical-realist sparkle at the same time, interweaving the highly-specific myth and folklore of the Black Country with the coal and soot economy of a factory town. To capture the spirit of her setting, Pietroni employs the Black Country dialect in her characters’ speech; the vernacular rhythms are a lovely feature of the novel that might challenge some readers. Like Zora Neale Hurston, who preserved Eatonville’s strange colloquialisms (and thus much of its culture) forever in her writing, Lawrence Pietroni uses her characters’ odd speech patterns as more than just a gimmick. However, unlike Hurston, who refuses to provide context to help readers glean meaning from her Southerners’ voices, Lawrence Pietroni at times stages interjections that clarify peculiarities of the Black Country dialect. This is the foremost of several concessions to clarity in a novel that, on the whole, would be more endearing if it allowed its central mysteries freer rein over narrative. The third-person narrator is strongly attuned to Ruby, an insightful girl to be sure, but often Ruby’s realizations, both in their acuity and profundity, read like exposition rather than characterization. Still, these are minor gripes, ultimately more about editing than writing, and they shouldn’t steer one away from the vividly-imagined Black Country world that Lawrence Pietroni presents here. Fans of Susanna Clarke and Sarah Waters will wish to take notice.
Ruby’s Spoon is new today in hardback from Spiegel & Grau.