Rebecca's mother left her in a shoebox outside an Italian restaurant in 1965. Miraculously, someone found the infant before the rats did. There was, however, no miracle to save the grown-up Rebecca's child Ruby from a tragic death. In Mourning Ruby, Helen Dunmore depicts with aching sensitivity this mother who loses not only a beloved child but the only blood relative she knows, and eventually manages to go on.
The author of seven novels, and the first winner of England's Orange Prize, Dunmore excels at making grief palpable and new. A poet as well as a fiction writer, she creates with small details the lives Rebecca lived before and after Ruby died. The novel is not divided that simply, though: the reader goes back and forth in time with Rebecca and the men in her life. First is Joe, the historian Rebecca loves platonically. Her roommate and soulmate, he introduces her to Adam, the dedicated neonatal doctor who becomes her husband and Ruby's father. Soon afterwards, Joe leaves Rebecca, realizing that they will never have a romantic connection. This lost love colors his life, as does Rebecca and Adam's loss of their child. Given the title and the explicit prologue, there is never any doubt what will happen to Ruby. It's just a matter of when. Dunmore lets Ruby reach age five, to become a person on her own ("She had her life, and it was her own life."), before she is struck down by a speeding car. Questions of guilt and responsibility haunt Rebecca and Adam's relationship, and both must try to rebuild their lives.
As the novel develops, one imaginative story follows another, and some of the strangest tales prove to be real. Mourning Ruby takes readers on multiple journeys that seem somehow related. At once confusing and challenging, Dunmore's graceful novel calls out to be re-read until it all makes a kind of sense. For after all, we ask more of books than we do of life. Anne Morris is a writer in Austin, Texas.