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This is the tale of three women - one witch, one mermaid and one missing - and how Ruby was caught up in between.
Despite the opening, this novel is more gritty realism than fantasy - there is lots of mythical imagery but in truth, the setting for this novel is a small industrial town cut off from everywhere else by the surrounding canals, in the Black Country area of the West Midlands. It is 1933 (the middle of the Great Depression), and a stranger arrives in town to turn Ruby's life upside down, for better or worse.
Ruby is 13. Her mother died years ago, her father has gone to live somewhere else leaving her in the care of her grandmother. The community of this town is stiflingly insular, the atmosphere is unpleasant, and it is no wonder that Ruby jumps at the way out offered by the newcomer, a woman called Isa Fly, who claims to be looking for her missing family. Unfortunately Isa quickly makes herself deeply unpopular with everyone else in town, especially when she becomes involved with the main local employer, Blicks Button Factory, which is in financial crisis.
The narrative begins at the end of the story with crowds gathering for a witch burning - is this 1933 or 1433?
This is a very striking debut novel. I am not sure that Pietroni succeeds in everything she is trying to do, but I was absorbed by the world she built up. The author uses regional dialect to flavour the dialogue and give everything local colour. She also works in a lot of references to folklore and myth, but actually, the real story of the present day is quite compelling in its own right. There are some very witty bits of dialogue, but there is also a growing sense of menace and danger as Isa's people skills perhaps leave something to be desired. The narrative jumps about a bit and it can get a bit confusing.
Interestingly, this tale is totally dominated by female characters. Many of the men in town died in the war, others seem to have gone missing or just stay at work and leave the women to get on with things. Bereaved mothers and wives have their own support group, the Ruth and Naomi society. Colourful characters include Isa Fly, Truda who has inherited the factory from her late father, Trembly Em and Ruby herself.
Ruby is a strong and memorable young character, ambitious, intelligent but unlikely to be able to carry on getting the education as she would like. She has been brought up without nearly enough love and attention, but has survived that rather well. In trying to help Isa find her relatives, she starts to uncover her own family secrets.
This is an impressive debut, and I look forward to seeing how Pietroni follows it up.
This paperback edition features a Reading Guide for the novel, including author Q & A about how she came to write Ruby's Spoon, her setting and language, and her recommendations for strong young female protagonists - Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, and the novels of Margaret Mahy, Antonia White and Cynthia Voigt (some mixed influences, but great reading recommendations there!)
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk, and I received a free paperback copy from Vintage (Random House) for review via that website.
It has 400 pages and a cover price of £7.99, and is currently available in paperback for £5.59 and in Kindle for a few pence less than the paperback.