The Book of Ruth
Review posted: 7/20/03
Jane Hamilton's first novel,The Book of Ruth is not easy to pin down. Told by Ruth herself, the story gently moves through her life, leaping forward from point to point and moment to moment as we form a picture of her in our minds.
From the time she was a child Ruth has had her confidence undermined. The first child of a poor and unhappy couple she is a constant disappointment, often for reasons that are not clear, to her mother May. When her brother, a child prodigy is born she quickly grows to feel resentful and inferior. She is subjected by her mother to verbal abuse, and her father abandons the family.
Ruth wants nothing more than to be loved for who she is, but she cannot find it in her to give herself that love. Her only friends are a "loose" girl named Daisy, a blind woman named Mrs. Finch and her mother's estranged sister, Sidney. And to none of them does she reveal her whole self.
Ruth sees herself being saved only by escape, but because of her poverty and extreme lack of confidence escape is beyond her grasp. Instead she finds escape in love. She marries Ruby, a young man from the same small town, and they move in with May to make a life for themselves. They have a child, who is the center of the house and each individual's universe. This is how they live for years, and with each year, both May and Rudy grow more resentful of each other and more abusive of Ruth.
It is hard to define what happens next without giving away the ending, but the ending is shocking. Bloody and horrifying Ruth's world comes crashing down around her, and she finds escape, not in love, but in leaving what she thought was love behind.
The Book of Ruth is not a comfortable book to read. Hamilton is a wonderful writer, her voice clear, her imagery vivid and her honesty uncompromised. Ruth's voice of damaged innocence rings true throughout the text. That being said, I admit that there were times I wanted to close the book and walk away, I found it so disturbing.
But I didn't. Even as I shuddered I was drawn to Ruth, her helplessness, her impossible desire to be fair to everyone. Ruth doesn't see things in black and white, only shades of grey and yet, at times you can see that she longs for the world to be black and white.
But the most disturbing aspect was the picture it painted of a woman trapped by abusive, verbal and physical. Ruth is so accepting of it that for much of the book you simply acknowledge it as Ruth does, this is what is to be expected. As such, it is not as shocking as it might otherwise seem. Hamilton's portrait is so honest and clear that you see the world through Ruth's eyes, and sadly, she doesn't expect much from the world, and that is what the world gives back to her. She knows that she is living a shabby little life, but is unable to change it. But most importantly, although Ruth longs to escape and you root for her to get away, it's impossible for her.
This is not a novel about a woman triumphing over her circumstances, this is a novel about her surviving them. I have asked and heard asked the question - if a woman is abused, why doesn't she just leave? It seems so easy from the outside looking in. Hamilton's genius, and what makes The Book of Ruth so powerful, is that for the 328 pages of this book, you are on the inside, looking out.
Note: Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.