Anna Lawrence Pietroni's debut novel takes place in the summer of 1933 in a small industrial town in the Black Country. Cradle Cross and its canal-bound environs provide a realistic backdrop to the florid melodrama of this tale about "three women, one witch, one mermaid and one missing". The 13-year-old Ruby lives with her grandmother. Her mother is dead and her father a recluse who never leaves his boatyard. Her real father figure is Captin, a cuddly bear of a man who runs the fish-and-chip shop where Ruby works and dreams of escaping to the sea, a fantasy piqued by the arrival of a strange woman in a deep crimson cloak: Isa Fly, with one white eye and, though young, a mane of snow-white hair.
Isa has come from the sea in search of the child her father abandoned in Cradle Cross. The plan is to reunite the now-grown woman with the raving old man, in hopes that reconciliation might bring about a cure for a sudden mysterious illness threatening his life.
Ruby takes Isa to see Truda Cole Blick, the Oxbridge graduate who has just inherited the ailing button factory on which the town relies. In this book, characters develop profound intimacies within minutes of meeting. Within hours, they are locked in emotional thralls. Truda and Ruby adore Isa and vie for her affections. The townspeople are less enamoured. Before long, hatred is directed at the newcomer, and at the snooty factory owner. A spate of mysterious disappearances ensue, all aggravating long-held griefs.
The "loss-linens', embroideries in commemoration of sons and brothers lost in the Great War, are stolen. Meanwhile, a menacing woman known as the Blackbird, black-robed and gypsyish, passes up and down the canal on her dredger, the town's children chant gnomic rhymes about Isa as they skip, and Trembly Em, an old woman prone to seizures, stirs up talk of witchcraft.
A spirited and adventurous writer, Pietroni loves words and takes joy in story-telling, but her writing is excitable and this book cries out for better editing. She displays the novice's desire to include everything. Often the charcaters speak as if reading out prose, and there are too many strained metaphors. Shortened, sharpened, marketed differently, Ruby's Spoon would work as a crossover novel. As well as dark secrets, concealed hatreds, ambiguous identities and tormented relationships, it is about a child in need of parents, for Ruby behaves and empathises like a nine-year-old.
Where Pietroni has succeeded best is in making timeworn fairy-tale tropes thrive in a mundane setting. The talismanic power of an object, the siren song of mermaids, the brewing of spells – these things sit comfortably alongside fish-and-chips and factory sirens.
Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Scapegallows' (Virago)Reuse content