"This is the tale," a prologue tells us, "of Ruby Abel Tailor, who could not cross the water but dreamed of an easy plenty by the sea. This is the tale," it continues, "of three women—one witch, one mermaid and one missing—and how Ruby was caught up in between" (p. 3). This flawed novel's virtues largely flow from that assertion of narrative confidence, I think. Anna Lawrence Pietroni's implied narrator makes itself so plain only infrequently, but always to good destabilising effect. "We mustn't judge Ruby" (p. 162), it cautions at one point. At the very least this and other interventions ensure that we pay closer attention to Ruby's choices than we might otherwise, but I don't think we would be wrong to conclude that the narrator is at least as judgmental as its readers, nor to pay close attention to how it frames its tale. There is plenty of description, both of place and of action, but this is a narrator that is happy to be seen to be guiding our interpretations. It frequently points things out to us in parenthetical asides—it is particularly fond of pointing out strange or troubling behaviours of characters that Ruby rather likes—as if to say, here's what's really going on. A reader might start to mistrust this teller, might have to ask: is that so? What gives you the right to tell it like this?
There are, after all, tales in Ruby's Spoon excluded from that opening pronouncement. The novel's distinctively English setting, a fictional Black Country village by the name of Cradle Cross, is the sort of place where stories are "passed round, from hand to hand, like teacups" (p. 139), and is a story in itself: a fading industrial polder, built of brick and slate, and bounded by the brackish water of the canals of the Cut. It reminded me somewhat of Edward Hogan's Blackmoor, in the recent Desmond Elliott Award-winning novel of the same name, a setting some years later and away to the North-East of Pietroni's, but one that exhibits the same dependency on industry, and suffers the same decline once that lynchpin is removed. There are some similarities of plot between the two novels as well—both play with how members of a nervous community can story those who are perceived as intruders; new stories, they think, might keep them safe—although Hogan's novel only threatens to cross into the fantastic.
In Ruby's Spoon, the industry in question is the button factory owned by the Blick family, which for generations—and, crucially, through the Great War whose demographic damage is in 1933 still working itself out—supplied the British army and many others with the finest fastenings money could buy. Lately, and particularly since it fell into the hands of Truda Blick—returned to Cradle Cross in possession of an Oxbridge degree purchased with her family's new money and not trusted by many, least of all banks—it has started to stutter, and as prefigured in the prologue, it will fall, consumed by fire. By the time of the novel's climax this strand of the novel feels to be not just the end of a story for Truda Blick, whose struggle is vital to the success of Ruby's Spoon despite her being neither witch, mermaid, missing nor Ruby, and not just the end for several of the novel's other characters: it feels like the end of the story of Cradle Cross itself.
But as told, all of this is counterpoint to the wide eyes of Ruby Abel Tailor. A teenager estranged from her father and living with her grandmother, Ruby finds herself drawn into the orbit of a strange visitor to Cradle Cross—the youthful yet white-haired Isa Fly, blind in one eye, searching for a sister whose existence has only just been revealed to her. Isa becomes the focus of Cradle Cross's story-spinning ways, and starts to be forced into the role of witch. There does seem to be something charmed about the way she eases herself first into Ruby's life—before long the girl feels that she "owned Isa like an article of faith" (p. 51), and sets about assisting her search with the fierce determination of the innocent—and then into Truda's good books, and spare room. Once again the invisible narrator colludes with this sense; Isa's way with people is often commented on in those conspicuous parentheticals. "(And that was how it was with Isa Fly at first—when she came in, there was a lightness in the room, an absence like a slackening, like easy breathing after all-night pain.)" (p. 46). We can't really attribute Isa's maybe-magic to any unworldliness on Ruby's part, since the narrator stands outside her youth—indeed, comments on it, telling us that "Ruby was still firmly planted in her childhood" (p. 57)—and leads us to recognise the ways in which the novel's core emotional architecture remains beyond Ruby's experience. So one source of tension in the novel accompanies Ruby's naive attempts to excavate Isa's family history, and comprehend the truth about her own family that she discovers along the way: we fear that she's wading in beyond a depth she can manage, and hope that she can learn to swim. And one of the perils of the deep is the growing animosity to Isa (the coming button-factory fire always in the back of our mind), as heard in the mocking chants that begin to sing out across Cradle Cross, and as personified by Belle Severn, the Blackbird, who may or may not be out for revenge.
The wrinkles in this setup are explored at greater length than is really necessary, but perhaps the novel's most consistently intriguing aspect is its engagement with class. Here's an early conversation between Ruby and Isa:
"Why do you imagine that I'm here?" Isa's words were tight, reined-in, and Ruby was not certain whether Isa Fly was mocking her. "I'm sure you've given it some thought."
[ . . . ] "Well, yo must of needed to come here quick because yo said last night as when yo missed the packed boat yo hitched up on a barge."
"Yo was in a rush to get here. And then yo said that the Doctor Something come wi yo to the docks . . . " Ruby peered at Isa, anxious. "Am yo ill, Isa?" (p. 23)
As this conversation illustrates, not only does Pietroni draw a clear divide among her characters between those, like Ruby, who speak with a clear Black Country accent—not an accent you hear much even in the UK, if you don't live in the region, which means that setting it down on the page is something of an act of advocacy—and those who do not, but she also pays attention to how that divide shapes her characters' relations. Isa's dialogue, for instance, marks her as an outsider, makes it hard for Ruby to tell when she's being serious. Just as significantly, Truda has lost her Cradle Cross accent—her tone is "strict and sleek" (p. 42), after her time at Oxford—which only reinforces her separation from her home; no longer entirely a part of Cradle Cross, she is still looked down on by those for whom, as she puts it, "money is air" (p. 224), not something earned. This is all well done.
More riskily, as you may have noticed, Pietroni does not carry this dialect through into her narration. This is, from one perspective, a clever way to modulate readerly sympathies. It keeps us aware that we are outsiders, looking in with this self-aware narrator; crudely, it positions us as being on Isa's side. Perhaps it is the only way Pietroni felt able to tackle this material honestly as someone who, like Truda, went away. But what does carry through is the association of conventional English grammar with social authority, and Ruby's Spoon doesn't fully avoid the obvious trap, that of seeming to patronise the people it observes. Mythologising this time and this place in this way—even with the narratorial archness I've been describing, although that does usefully complicate the novel's stance on this point—comes to feel invasive. You wonder how Ruby's Spoon might have sounded as written by Margo Lanagan, or another writer who inhabits the dialect of their tale more fully.
And yet this is not a glib novel. It takes its characters, particularly Ruby, and its setting seriously, and as a novel about the shifting relationships of a group of women it achieves some significant force. Here again it helps that Cradle Cross is so detailed a creation; when we're told of the Thursday Club, the "coalition of bereft women" (p. 75), who manage their grief for their war-lost men as pragmatically as they can, we get a real sense of how its inhabitants are working to adapt to changed lives. And Pietroni is good at mapping out the nuances of a conversation, or a confrontation. After a slightly repetitive middle third, replete with dire warnings from the Blackbird and nuggets of information about Isa's past but possessed of little momentum, the concluding stages of Ruby's Spoon are notable for several tense and layered exchanges, made only more poignant by the presence of Ruby, the girl for whom life hasn't happened yet. And after plenty of teasing—Ruby's spoon is given to her by Isa, and appears to be one of those charms that work only because of their owner's belief—the novel's fantastic elements, too, come into their own, and serve both to solidify the story's flirtation with folk-tale, and to provide a platform for an ending that would otherwise certainly have been too melodramatic, and may have seemed too eager to offer reassurance that the universe is a moral place. It's of a piece with the rest of this curious first novel: it doesn't pay out quite as it promises, but it supports more stories than it pretends. Such is the tale of Ruby's Spoon.