Monday, September 3, 2012

The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby — 352 pgs

Growing up in the 1970s, Ruthie and Dolly are almost feral children. Housed in the back of a station wagon with their compulsive mother, Diana, the two girls often go hungry and are skilled at picking through garbage and debris to salvage for their weekly stop at the pawn shop. Diana is a woman ruled by the moon, and spends her time plotting where she and her girls will land by the pages of The Farmer’s Almanac. Often too drunk to fully be aware of her girls’ safety, both Ruthie and Dolly are in harm’s way more often than not. But when Diana dies, leaving the girls to live at the Bethesda Home for Girls, they come to womanhood nearly as wild and unfettered as before their mother’s death. Many years later, when Ruth arrives at the same beachfront motel that the family once harbored at, she realizes that it has become a place where folks come to be lost and found. Taking a role as a caregiver there with her mother’s friend Ms. B, Ruth falls in love with a man who comes and goes like the tide. He can make her forget the past and yearn for the future, but in the end he is always wandering. After many years of his back and forth progressions, Ruth gives birth to Nadia, a child for whom the sea sings in her blood and who is prone to frightening visions. Naida is also no stranger to being different and must always defend herself from vicious bullies who live to torment her. It’s in this tale of three generations of diffident and headstrong women that Ilie Ruby weaves a tale full of Scottish sea lore and mystic Jewish traditions. As each woman in the family comes to see, things are not always as they appear in the moonlight.

One could argue that this book was in fact very moving on many levels. On one hand it’s a story that captures the intense bonds between women, and particularly the mother-child bond. From the very beginning, the author captures the magical awareness and protectiveness of this bond, but she also highlights what could go wrong with a mother who isn’t capable of raising her children with the basic foundation of safety, emotional or otherwise. Diana didn’t seem like the greatest role model for her girls, and she often left them confused and angered at her tumultuous migrations and regular displays of drunkenness. Yet the girls loved her, and when Ruth becomes a mother herself, she vows to do differently for her daughter, creating a soft place for her to land and giving her the stability and emotional openness that she never got as a child.

On the second level, this book unfolds as a dramatic tale of myth and legend, opening up the story to several different interpretations, themes, and varied symbolism. In these bits, scattered throughout the story with a careful hand, the author lures the reader in and builds suspense around the legends of the selkies, the mythical Scottish beings that appear as seals and shed their skin to walk on the land. It’s here that the family drama becomes tightly enmeshed in magic and magical realism. This interplay gives the book a slight fantasy bent and makes the final chapter from the point of a displaced Diana all the more powerful and significant.

The third element branching off from this tale is the story of Nadia and the bullying that disrupts her life. Born slightly disfigured, she suffers from the cruel blows of name calling early on, but later this early teasing morphs into something more dark and terrifying. Nadia is a child with a special gift, but these gifts have burrowed deep inside her subconscious, and she is agonized  to be so different from everyone else. The story within her is one of tempestuousness and unity with the force of the sea that she feels tied to. Her delicate situation leads her to her feeling very misunderstood and to taking chances that would be better avoided. She has a choice to make, and at such a young and vulnerable age, she is stoic and suffering.

While I really liked the book’s deeper magical realism bent and thought that all the elements of the story worked in unity with one another, I also felt that this was a rather dark and tragic tale. It unfolds slowly, like a flower opening to the sunlight, but when the full tale was exposed, it was impossible to miss what had been hinted at all along. The greater depths of the mystic elements turned this book from a forgettable one to one that I am still pondering over, and may be for a long time. An excellent read. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

16 comments:

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like this book works on so many levels! I'm excited to see it's so good and wish Ilie much success with it. Wonderful review, Heather!

Wall-to-wall books said...

Hmmm wow, I really don't know what to think about this book. It certainly seems like there is a lot going on. It does sound like it would be interesting! Worth looking into, and I do like magical realism!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I am looking forward to reading this book so it was great to read your thoughts on it -- didn't realize the magical realism element.

I can't take another sad or dark book right now though so I made a not to time this one just right. Staci sent me her copy.

Hope u had a nice weekend.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

Hmm, I don't know if I would have picked this one up based on the description. But your enthusiasm has definitely piqued my interest! I'll have to add it to my list.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Selkies are Irish too! Have you ever seen the John Sayles movie, "The Secret of Roan Inish"? Great selkie movie!

Suko said...

Wonderful review! I'd love to read this-if I only had a smaller TBR mountain!!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Like Heather, I'm not sure I would have chosen this book to read, but you write a gorgeous review and have made it seem pretty attractive now. It makes me sad because knowing my reading schedule, I'll probably never get to it. :(

Lisa said...

I find myself having trouble with books that have magical elements (although I love Isabel Allende) but this one sounds like it has more than enough realism to make it doable for me.

Jennifer @ Mrs Q Book Addict said...

This one is new to me and I will be adding it to my wish list. Great review!

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

I love the sound of this, but I think I'll save it for when I'm in the mood for sad stories. Right now I'm craving comfort reading more than anything else.

Audra said...

Ooooh, lovely review, Heather. A co-worker gifted this to me recently so I want to read it soon -- and you've got my very intrigued -- I esp love books that tie myth into the story arc so the selkie connection has me super excited.

Jenners said...

You always have such lovely writing in your book reviews. I admire that. This does sound like a well crafted and magical book that brings together a few genres at once. Well done!

Ti said...

Not a fan of magical realism. I'll probably skip this one. Although you did a bang-up job of reviewing it though :)

Buried In Print said...

This sounds really great: you've convinced me!

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

Books with the mother/child bond always get me - especially for some reason,the bond between mothers and daughters. It sounds like this one had tremendous depth regarding the relationships between women. Loved your review!

Darlene said...

I really enjoyed this book. I'm a sucker for anything magical within a book's pages though. I too find myself still thinking a out it in terms of what was real, what wasn't, etc.

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