Welcome to the delights of South Manchester Beatrice, I hope you got here ok, was the traffic bad? Now can I get you a tea or a coffee and what would you like biscuit or cake wise before we begin? Would Fairy Cakes be an idea (I have become obsessed with The Great British Bake Off, so have whipped some up), as there is a fairytale theme with the book we are going to discuss…
Hi Simon. Glad to be here. No traffic on a Sunday. And yes a fairy cake or two would be great.
I chose ‘Ruby’s Spoon’ as it caused rather a stir in the publicity world when it came out in hardback and then sort of vanished. When I saw it at the time I heard it had witches and mermaids in it and do love an adult fairytale, would you say that is a fair summation having read it? What were you expecting?
I missed the stir so I hadn’t heard of it, but the reviews I read were good. I can’t say ‘adult’ and ‘fairytale’ really do it for me – I have a young daughter and have my fair share of mermaid stories such as ‘Ingo’ by Helen Dunmore. But I did go through an Angela Carter phase once and thought, hey, why not? Being in Scotland, and ignorant of most of England’s geography, I can’t say I even knew where Black Country was, but just the words, ‘Black Country’ did summon up something magically sinister.
Did you like it? I did though I did think that it was a little bit on the long side, is that unfair?
I found a lot to admire in it. Bit it was way, way too long and I really struggled to finish it. If I hadn’t been reviewing it for you, I don’t think I would have. I don’t know how many thousands of words, but it felt like it was at least three times the length of most novels.
I will admit the prologue made me think ‘uh-oh this isn’t going to work for me’. It didn’t seem to make any sense. I knew there was a witch on fire but apart from that I was stumped. In fact I was almost geared up to not like it. What was your reaction as the book itself, and the story, seems much clearer, in comparison to that?
I liked the opening. I found the writing brilliant, the descriptions vivid and unusual. If only she had changed gear for the rest of it. The whole novel was like the opening – tantalizing but elusive, coy and yet almost completely incomprehensible. There seemed to be almost no story, only description and revelation, exposition and exhaustively written detail. Everything was given the same weight – a lengthy description of a walk along a path and then a crucial plot twist. It was all so convoluted. I felt as if weeks had gone past only to find it was only days.
And yet I loved the setting, the industrial landscapes and the button factory, the character’s names -Trembly Em, and Moonie Fly. It seemed that the writer had all this great material and yet didn’t know how what to do with it. It didn’t hang together at all for me – it was like listening to someone give a very poor rendition of the plot of a very good film. And then, and then, and then. Aaaaaagh. Sorry, I need some more tea.
Yes, apologies about that, I am being a dreadful host. There we go, lovely. The thing that I think I loved the most about the book was the sense of mystery. Isa Fly arrives almost out of nowhere and brings with her this mystery of why she is here and a feeling of change at the same time. I really liked this personally, it gave the book a drive and a pace, I wanted to know more…
I too wanted to know more. At first. But there was too much assumed, don’t you think? Why did Ruby want to go to sea so much? Also, with such a classic set up – stranger in town – the expectation is that something will happen. Most of what happened had already happened in the past. It was mostly an uncovering of old stories rather than being driven by anything current. I became rather annoyed when I realized that the hunt for Lily Fly was just a red herring. Ultimately though, I’m afraid that I was unable to suspend my disbelief and found my self having to drag myself through the story rather than being picked up and swept along.
Yes, I know what you mean about the revelations being more in the past than in the now, that’s a very good point. I couldn’t say I was dragged though, whilst I didn’t devour the book (I actually had other books I would turn to in order to give myself a breather) I did enjoy it once I picked it up ahain. A lot of the book relies on us having to empathise with or just enjoy spending time with Ruby. I worried that I just wouldn’t be interested or would find her a precocious type of early teenager, I couldn’t have been more wrong, she charmed me. Did she charm you?
I liked her, yes, but wasn’t enchanted. I didn’t feel as if I knew her well enough. I couldn’t get under her skin but that was because of the writing. We kept on being told that she was enchanted by Isa Fly but I couldn’t really feel it. Likewise, she keeps asking questions – surely this is the reader’s job rather than the main characters? She seemed a little like a device.
Ooh, I hadn’t thought about that side of it. Yes, now you mention it she does ask a lot. But then I thought that might be so the reader learnt more. There is the slight concern if a character is asking too many questions there is something amiss somewhere I guess. I have to admit I did get a bit confused about the water initially. Not just because Ruby was so scared for it, which initially I just didn’t get, and because of the way it surrounded the area of Cradle Cross (brilliant name) in the middle of the Black Country which was landlocked too… erm, what? I didn’t think the map really helped me, I just got more confused.
I like maps in books. Although I now realize that didn’t I glance at it once as I was reading. It wasn’t the geography of the place that confused me but the geography of the plot.
Oh you are on fire today Beatrice, have another cake. Now back to mapping… I always worry a little if a book has a map at the front; it’s like when someone puts a family tree in a book at the start too. It worries me, does the publisher/author think that the reader cant manage this novel and if they think that then what hope does a reader have…
Yes, it makes you wonder if the publishers panicked at the last minute that no one would understand it.
How did you fair with the fact the book was written in the old Black Country, which is a huge character as a place in the book, dialect. How did you get on with ‘take me back wi yo’ and ‘he ay made it easy for yo’? I admit it was one of the parts of the book that I struggled with…
I also struggled with the dialogue at first but I did grow to like it. It gave the novel a real flavour and nuance. You could really hear Ruby’s voice really clearly. I liked that.
What I also sometimes struggled with and also really loved, weirdly, was the magical elements of the book. They added so much and yet slightly distracted too. Can you tell I feel a bit mixed about the book (I think I need it to settle with me a bit more) overall?
The juxtaposition of the gritty northern landscapes and mermaids and witches didn’t work for me at all.
I felt it meant she could just keep changing the goalposts . Surely the 1930s was enough? I felt all the witches and mermaids stuff undermined the serious detail, the widows and their losslinen and absent men. Did it need more? I would have found it far more moving and involving without the magical elements.
I thought the shades of the WWI in the background adding a real tension and spooky element, especially with all the widows in the town, really added something to the novel, did you find that? It made the book seem more magical, oh I don’t know how to put that into words… can you help using your writing skills Beatrice?
I liked all the WW1 stuff and the period detail too. An awful lot of work clearly went into the research and you get a sense of the real visceral joy that the author had in the details. And yes, it feels like a community very much in decline – times are changing.
Now the start is sort of the ending, did you like that aspect of the book or did it sort of mean no matter where the author took us, and the mystery as we mention throughout is wonderful, you already know what is coming. How did you feel at the end?
Glad to have got there. No seriously, the book has real resonance and a lovely flavour. The voice, the descriptions, the brilliant writing and all that detail about Cradle Cross stayed with me. I now wonder if the author was deliberately playing with plot, with expectation of a what a plot should be? Can all the story be in back story? I don’t think so. It made me realize that what I love in novels is a good story, one with action and character development. Beautiful descriptions, evocative names and interesting narratives are nothing without a narrative that hooks you and a character who in solving a mystery is also digging deep into themselves. I wish I had been moved at the end. Sadly, I wasn’t.
I’d love to read something shorter by the same author, however. I think she has a huge talent. It’s always hard to balance research with the constraints of the plot. In the end, however, you have to be brutal. Less is always more and space is as important in a book as detail. Hopefully her next book will be shorter, simpler and will give her characters room to breath and come alive.
Well thanks for coming and chatting Beatrice, do stick around in case anyone else pops by for a natter. In fact, I better get some more cups of tea on the go and more fairy cakes out and we can see if anyone wants to join us for more bookish discussion over afternoon tea, let’s see if any of them have anything to add or discuss.