Ruby’s Dream: The Story of a Boy’s Life (RR) by Ronan Matthew

My biggest problem with Ruby’s Dream: The Story of Boy’s Life was I wish it had committed to the memoir genre rather than feigning being fiction – that was distracting, but overall the story of this boy’s life was an interesting read. It begins on his (Ferdinand Antonio apparently not Ronan Matthew) arrival in New York, a new Caribbean/British West Indian (at the time) immigrant from Santa Maria (not Antigua, but not not Antigua – which was named for a church in Spain named Santa Maria de la Antigua). It covers his early years in the States, the rough going of trying to find work when you’re not from the US and are a person of colour (even a white-seeming though not white-passing person of colour, a “shell dolly” as he was called on the island), and ends with his graduation from university, the first in his family to do so. It goes back to the island a number of times to fill in that complicated family history and paint a picture of the world he came from – in some of the more vibrant parts of the book. And in these island spaces at least, the veil between fiction and memoir strains and sometimes tears because from the names of places to significant dates including the 1736 rebellion to the cricket days and the cricketer and his football playing brother (Sir Vivian and Mervyn Richards, though not named as such) to the debt that Harvard owes Antigua in reparations for slave money from a plantation owner used to start Harvard Law to the island’s claim of having 365 beaches, one for each day of the year, there is no question that Matthew is rebuilding the world around his own life. And that that world is Antigua. I understand the use of fiction as a filter but he needed to commit either way in order to either help this reader suspend disbelief (pretend it’s not his story, not Antigua) or commiserate fully with a life that journeys from tragic to triumphant.

The tragic parts include the death of his mother when he was too young to understand what he had lost, but feeling it nonetheless, and the abuse at the hand of a father he barely knew (an oddly familiar father to those of us who knew men of this type). The Catholic schooling and education by white (and one Black) Brother who assumed themselves inherently superior to the people they served, the poverty (cardboard in the soles of shoes because there were no new shoes to be had), the oppression of racism which manifests in many ways including the generational rape of Black women who then birthed children abandoned on the one hand, not quite belonging on the other. Boys like the author/main character. All of these and more. Including the oppressive sweat shop labour, the disease of drugs around him, the crime, the bewilderment, the triple shifts while paying his way through college in his New York years. But ultimately finding purpose and success, the note on which the novel (memoir?) quickly ends.

It is well framed in that sense, rather than trying to tell a whole life, focusing on a chapter of that life that holds a compelling arc.

It was a good read, especially after I realized the repetition (saying the same thing in the same way over and over) that made the introductory segment feel drawn out, for the deliberate narrative style it was. And while the book could use additional editing to better make some connections and perhaps re-order some segments for flow and internal coherency (it felt sometimes like information download rather than structured narrative), and maybe rein in some of the repetition for pacing reasons (e.g. the six pages plus just riding the train in the beginning), plus some minor proofing, it worked generally. It put you in the moment and held you there – e.g. the disorientation of being a fish out of water in a city where no one made eye contact (every Caribbean person on their first trip to the Big Apple has some story like this).

Another notable literary device, the use of contrast, life on an island v. life in the big city; the register also stands out to me, feeling overly formal initially but seeming to relax as the writing went on (or maybe I didn’t notice it as much as I got in to the story). Something I never adjusted to though, how long the chapters felt – that could have done with some breaking up, for momentum.

One of the interesting dynamics of books of this type as well is the social history built in to the personal history – in this case largely 1960s and 1970s but with call backs to earlier times in the lives of working people and the emergent middle class on a not-yet-independent island in the English speaking Caribbean. For me, some of the more interesting bits were the social history of the Ovals area where the boys played and observed the adults around them, and near the end when he delved more in to his family history and in so doing the history of race, class, privilege, and movement of people in the former slave colonies. This could have been explored more but by then it felt a bit like a rush to the finish which is unfortunate.

In the memoir or ripped from real life fictions of Antigua and Barbuda’s publishing history, I can’t think of another book that quite occupies the space this book does because of the author’s racial make-up and place in society – and I would have been interested in more of this aspect of it.

Ultimately though this is a heartbreaking tale of a young boy-cum-young man first trying to understand and later working to figure out and define his place in the world. Interesting insights to the immigrant experience and outsiderness generally. Vivid in its descriptions and though the character is himself emotionally closed off in his real time reactions to the things happening to him, the reader can’t help but feel for him (credit to the author for his handling of the horror of the situations relative to the vulnerability of the main character).

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