Ruby has just turned thirteen when her parents, Barbara and Mick, tell her that she was adopted when she was four months old. Ruby has learned to shield herself from Mick’s endless tantrums and meltdowns, a violent streak manifested in a fist that periodically “jumps out like a snake and cracks her head.” Barbara spends most of her time telling Ruby how much she’s sacrificed;
she says that Mick still misses their daughter, Trudy, who died when she was three. Ruby tells us she was born in the “Forest of Dean,” in one of a row of small stone cottages. Ruby is haunted by a
hunched shadow on the stairs. The little boy’s presence becomes a catalyst for Ruby’s imaginings of her real parents: “I’ve become a proper hunter, of true family, of the threads that ghosts leave behind.”
Ruby is used to living in a fantasy world and the abuse that Mick periodically
doles out, but she isn’t prepared for his latest round of hysterics. Mad and resentful, positive that her real parents did not want to give her up, Ruby embarks on a mission to find her own flesh and blood. Like Alice in Wonderland, Ruby has fallen down her own rabbit hole into
the much harsher world of Mick and the ghost of little Trudy. There’s a sudden slap, a punch. Trudy
believes that, one day, Mick will end up killing her. Barbara tries to be a loving mother, but she
is self-centered and ultimately conspires with Mick to banish Ruby. Luckily, Ruby gets a second chance when she stumbles across Elizabeth, Tom and Crispin. The siblings live in the ramshackle Forester’s Cottage. Here Ruby finds solace, somewhere to fill the space until she finds her real mum and dad.
Utilizing a prose style that was so effective in The Girl in the Red Coat, Hamer describes Ruby’s life in a visually poetic way that jolts the reader with its beauty and raw power. The zeitgeist of this tale is the enduring quality of Ruby’s search.
The child's most powerful vision--the car, the yellow dress, and “the upside-down woman”--is a secret too big
to be contained: “I saw it happen, it came out of the window in its buttercup dress.”
The challenge for the reader is the constant switching of perspectives from past to present. Moving from Ruby’s life in 1983
back to 1970, when a girl called Anna discovers that she’s pregnant, Hamer peels back the layers to reveal Anna’s truth a little at a time. Anna is largely happy with her job at a chemist shop handing out bottles and packets of medication. She thinks of
someday becoming a real chemist. Her dreams, however, soon melt away into a new life with handsome, passionate Lewis--the father of her child.
Though the book lacks urgency, Hamer succeeds in portraying both Anna and
Ruby as realistic and strong, independent yet limited by the strictures of familial and societal obligation.
The best scenes are in cosmopolitan London, where Anna grows frustrated at Lewis’s life as he begins to inhabit those “shadowy places”--the clubs and bars, the places with “girls without babies.” At first the City enchants Anne, everything from the winter pansies in the Notting Hill window boxes to the eclectic passersby. Back at Forester Cottage, Ruby
struggles to confront Tom and Elizabeth about the location of Crispin, “the boy with a mud-daubed mouth,” and the identity of the strange, dead woman in the buttercup dress.
Both Ruby and Anna live in the extreme, from profound restlessness and intense eagerness to unequivocal anger and turbulent relationships. Ruby’s security is yet again placed in peril when she
is forced back into Mick’s presence and the ferocity that has blighted so much of her life. Back in “that house,” Ruby holds dear to the possibility of
a clue that might bring her closer to her real mum and dad. Anna’s waterfall of love connects Ruby to the world, enabling her to mute her passionate emotions, her heartbreak, and her capacity to tolerate Mick’s seemingly unendurable violence and rage.