|Cover by Julia Lloyd|
Titan Books, 6 October 2020
Available as: PB
Source: Advance PB copy
I'm really, really grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Ruby to consider for review.
Nina Allan is one of the authors who, when I see they have a new book coming, make me silently shout "YES!" (or sometimes not so silently). Her blending of the mundane and the fantastical, her referencing whole alternate worlds - sometimes bizarrely alien, sometimes only subtly different from ours - makes her books into wonderful, almost holographic puzzles, where the detail and the big picture contain the entirety of each other and every page is a joy to read.
So it is with Ruby. Told as a group of seven stories, this certainly IS the story of horror actress Ruby Castle even though at the same time, many of the stories say every little about her. Or seem to. Actually I think the less that's said, the more she may be present.
For example, I'm reasonably sure - though Allan doesn't say so - that one of the stories is actually one of Castle's films. It is a horror story, and the actress isn't mentioned - where would she be other than in plain sight? Alternatively, it may be that Castle's films are interacting with our world - which is to say, Allan's fictional world - there is a reference in that story to an escaped Nazi war criminal who features obliquely in another story seemingly set in Allan's "real world", one that mentions Castle's grandfather.
The stories can all the enjoyed in their own right and independently of the rest, but the more of them you read, the more links you'll see both in content (persons, events) and themes. Some are naturalistic and some contain (possible) elements of the supernatural - so for example The Lammas Worm is perhaps an (MR) Jamesian sort of horror, with a hinted at monster, but also establishes Castle's background and early years in a travelling show. The carnival life is a recurring theme, as it is in others of Allan's books (which have also I think explored the relationship between reality and films). Other, darker themes include the disappearance of children or young women. Some of these Arte explained or we can easily guess a link to the presence of predatory men, sometimes there may be other, more esoteric reasons.
Even where there is no death or disappearance, or it's hinted that the woman in question turned up again later, Allan often evokes a sense of menace, a feeling that something isn't right, an atmosphere of suspicion and misease. Indeed sometimes the manner of the "turning up" only fuels that unease, which is also underpinned by the timelines of the various pieces. Both between and within the stories there are jump cuts, flashbacks (and, in the case of one story set in 2029 onwards, forwards) and narratives in narratives. The result is, indeed, like a hall of mirrors, with events seen from different perspectives some (or all) of which may be distorted, and characters who keep secrets from each other. How unsettling it is for example to see a reunion between old friends after many years, but to have been told by one, the narrator, that he'd had an affair with the other's wife?
Reading over these last few paragraphs, I think I should emphasise that Allan's writing isn't all - indeed it is hardly at all - weird, shock horror stuff. Even when dealing with the eruption of the grotesque into real life, she writes carefully, restrainedly and, as a result, utterly convincingly. In London, a woman keeps meeting the ghost of her schoolfriend, missing some ten or twenty years. Two tourists witness a horror when stranded one night on a mountain: the next morning they reason it away and go on with their lives. A girl on a train discovers men who ought to be dead: she, too, simply accepts it as one of those things. The stories, even the shortest, tell us enough about what went before and what happens after (and sometimes other stories add to this) to give a sense of their characters' longer lives, of what sort of people they are where they came from, so these moments of strangeness never define the whole life or the person - except, ironically, for Ruby who does commit an act that will frame the rest of her life.
Ruby is simply awesomely, jaw-droppingly good, and will be one of my top reads of 2020. Don't delay, get this on your TBR pile (and right at the top).
For more about Ruby, see the publisher's website here.