Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Review: Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore

There May Be Such a Thing as Too "Literary": A Book Review of Mourning Rubyby Helen Dunmore

This novel is more or less about a mother who is grieving the tragic loss of her five-year-old daughter. But the "more or less" part cannot be overlooked. If it weren't for the title and the ominous cover picture featuring a little girl skipping in the leaves in a red dress, the reader would have no idea what this book is about for quite some time. It begins with a prologue that is a dream sequence, told in the first person, of the narrator--Ruby's mother Rebecca--and Ruby walking along a road. I thought that a novel should never open with a dream; it's a cheap technique, too easily and often used. And unfortunately the book continues that way, although a lot of the techniques are more original. After the prologue, Rebecca describes what happened to her when she herself was a baby, which was that her mother left her in a shoebox outside an Italian restaurant. She was then adopted by parents who seem not to care for her much, and the feelings are mutual. She tells her own story in such a removed and distant way that it is hard to relate to her. Plus, the tone of the writing is confusing and the plot starts jumping all
over the place.

Soon we learn that Rebecca lived with a guy who was in love with her, but those feelings weren't mutual. His name is Joe and he writes historical non-fiction. He's in the middle of writing a book about Stalin's second wife, and this story takes up a good chunk of the first part of the book. That story could be rather interesting, but Joe tells it to Rebecca in a series of long drawn-out conversations, in which he makes clear that she is not interested in what he is talking about. So why should the reader be? I never really figured that out, although I did enjoy reading about collectivist Russia.

We also learn that Rebecca has a husband named Adam, but the relationship between them doesn't seem very convincing. He is a doctor who saves newborn babies, ironically. Some things seem like easy plot devices which aren't very realistic-- such as Rebecca working part-time in a bar while her husband is doctoring.

Another central sub-plot in Mourning Rubyis the story of Rebecca and her boss, Mr. Damiano, for whom she goes to work after Ruby's death. To me he was the most interesting character and his story was the most captivating, albeit even more unrealistic than the relationship between Rebecca and Adam. His family performed in circuses in Madrid, and his little sister suffered a tragedy almost as devastating as Ruby's death. Mr. Damiano likes to re-create "dream worlds"--obviously a theme underlying the novel--and bring pleasure to people as his business. He owns a chain of hotels, all named after minor English poets: Sidney, Lampedusa, Villon, Langland, Sonescu, Cavafy, Sexton, and Bishop. Poetry and written language play a central part in this novel. In fact, an obvious theme is a writer writing about writing, which I found at times to be both interesting and annoying.

For instance, each chapter--and many of them are very short--starts out with a rather strange title and a snippet of a poem, excerpt from a book, or folk song. I found these snippets to be distracting because I wanted to know where they came from and how they related to the book and what the rest of the snippet was all about. Like much about the book, this information is never revealed to the reader, except at the very end, when Dunmore includes a list of "sources," which include her own poetry. Also in line with the literary theme, Joe tells Rebecca near the beginning of the book that the Russian poet Mandelstam once wrote about baby airplanes as a metapher for writing poetry: one airplane in full flight gives birth to another airplane, which then flies off and gives birth to another airplane. Dunmore weaves this theme into the novel, as a way to show how one story gives life to another, and all stories are connected. I suppose that Rebecca is trying to find her own life story, but the rather interesting plot line about her birth and her upbringing as an adopted child is abandoned rather early on. It's hard to care about a book when each story drops off after it gives birth to the next one. Ruby's death is the only main theme that continues throughout the book, but it's hard to connect to because so many other stories are swarming around it.

Most frustrating of all, for me, wasn't the fact that so many stories were told, but rather it was the way they were told. Much of the prose during Rebecca's narration is beautiful (the jacket cover states that Dunmore is a poet and short story writer, so I might like to check her out in these contexts, in which the language and style might work better for me than it did in a novel). The flowery language, however, seemed to detract from the plot for me and made it hard for me to related to Rebecca as a real character. And some of the stories that had the potential to be the most exciting were told in the dullest manners possible. Mr. Damiano's fascinating life story is told--much like the history of Stalin that Joe is writing--in long strings of conversation, which to me took a lot away from the potential captivating action. I was unsure why Dunmore chose to do this, even though I "got" that she had this over-riding theme of writing about writing, and writing about stories within stories.

Mid-way through Mourning Ruby, the point of view changes, and we are seeing Joe, told from the omniscient perspective, without Rebecca there, and also Adam in the same way. To me this was disappointing and destroyed any integrity the novel was supposed to have. It was another easy way out. The last part of the book is part of a novel that Joe sends to Rebecca, ostensibly to help her figure out her own story. I found part of this plot interesting, as it was about a prostitute named Florence who lived in France during the First World War. The Madame of the house was the only strong female character in the book (I thought it was annoying how Rebecca learned everything about herself through the three main male characters), although Florence, by the end portion of Joe's unfinished work of fiction, was starting to develop into a strong character as well. Joe tells Rebecca that he hasn't finished the book and so he encloses character and plot notes, which we the poor readers are forced to suffer through, right when we were into the story of Florence, and quite awhile after we had totally lost track of the story of Rebecca and Ruby.

Overall, Mourning Rubywas one of the most discombobulated novels I have ever read. At first it left me feeling disoriented, and then, once I got my bearings, it usually left me feeling disappointed. At times the language was captivating, and at other times the plot was too. These times were nearly canceled out, however, by the parts that seemed to be told in a hurry of rushed dialogue. The concept is certainly ambitious and I like some of the ideas behind the novel, but I think they were executed rather poorly, with style valued much more than substance. I did enjoy the writing theme, but it was much too much: definitely overkill. I enjoyed reading about the different places and time periods. Most of the parts featuring Rebecca--all of which are contemporary--are set in Cornwall, and some in London (Dunmore is a British writer). I also enjoyed reading about historical France and historical and modern-day Russia (where Joe briefly resides and where Rebecca and Adam go to visit him in a rather twisted love-triangle). So I can't say I regret reading this unique book, but it certainly wasn't one of my favorites. I give it two and a half stars, out of five.

Click on the image below to buy this book now, from (I will receive a small percentage of the sale price):

Here are some quotes and passages from the book that I really liked:

"She understood that she had no rights in the future of a baby she was about to give away. She wanted me to start with a clean sheet."

"I mistrust sensitive people. In my experience what they are chiefly sensitive to is themselves."

"In my view friendship can be rarer and tenderer than love."

"Living with someone, you can't help absorbing what they do. You get the language around you and you start to use it yourself, without thinking."

"When people say you remind them of someone it means that you remind them of themselves, of their own life, of their own concerns. You are a mirror, that's all."

"The circus had taught me the most important trick it possesses: to discover what people want, before they know it themselves, and before anyone else knows it. To discover it first, and act on it. It sounds very simple, doesn't it? You wonder why everyone doesn't find it out."

"You can't free yourself from the past. The past is what you are." [paraphrasing slightly]

"The most important thing parents have to do is to make their children believe that life is good. Or if they can't manage that, at least make them believe that life is bearable. That there are ways to bear it and that they will help the children to find them."

"Here I am sitting in a pool of electric light, with my iBook burning blue. I'm drinking whiskey and I'm about to start writing again. I'm in the territory of bears. They are all around me, even if I can't yet see them. I can sense them, smell them. I'm an indoor man by nature, and words are the kind of bears I hunt."

"The fact that the relationship between you didn't continue doesn't invalidate it- that would be like saying that love isn't real unless it lasts forever."

"For most of my life it felt improbable to me that I had a father at all. I don't remember him any more than you remember your mother. I'd love to have known him. Sometimes I get a sensation in my head, in my moth almost, like a taste or a smell. I nearly remember him, but then I don't. I try not to reach after it too much. The thread that links us is so slender that I'm afraid it'll snap if I strain it too far. it drives me crazy. Maybe there's a sensation like that in your head.

All those months inside your mother's body, those hours when she was yours and no one else's, and you were hers. The fact that the relationship between you didn't continue doesn't invalidate it- that would be like saying that love isn't real unless it lasts forever."

"A field is enough to spend a life in.
Harrow, granite and mattress springs,
shards and bones, turquoise droppings
from pigeons that gorge on nightshade berries,
a charm of goldfinch, a flight of linnets,
fieldfare and January redwing
venturing westward in the dusk,
all are folded in the dark of the field,

all are folded into the dark of the field
and need more days
to paint them, than life gives."

"Someone asked Mandelstam what poetry was like, and he said that it was like an aeroplane flying along which gives birth to a baby aeroplane which immediately begins to fly with its full strength and its own life, and gives birth to its own baby aeroplane. All this happens without any of the aeroplanes missing a beat. All this happens within one poem. Mandelstam's baby aeroplanes never nuzzle and butt around their mothers' bellies. Immediately they are born and they fly off, with their own life."

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