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After re-reading Moon Tiger for a review earlier this year, I was in the mood for something in a similar vein. Iris & Ruby, while by no means the same story, answered that need perfectly. Iris is an elderly English lady living in Egypt, where she was stationed during the war and where she met and fell in love with Xan Molyneux. Ruby is the granddaughter she hasn’t seen in years, a rebellious, mouthy teenager who has run away to Egypt after suffering her own loss.
At first I had trouble with the viewpoints – Ruby’s story is told in third person, whereas Iris’s is told in first. I found this slightly jarring, particularly when Ruby is with Iris and I was expecting a switch to first person. I soon got used to it, though I preferred the third person narrative, mainly because it allowed me to “see” more of Egypt.
Iris and Ruby are compelling characters, both strong personalities. Iris at first appears frail and stuck in her ways, supported by her quiet, dull routine. Ruby, as a rebelling teenager, has no plans to bow to someone else’s rules. But somehow, these two very different people find a middle ground and a strong and heart-warming relationship develops.
Both of them have known the loss of people they loved – Ruby’s loss is what drove her to Egypt and Iris’s loss of Xan during the war has coloured her life, making her a neglectful mother and absent wife. The book focuses on how relationships can heal. Though Lesley, Iris’s neglected daughter, is jealous of the bond her daughter has formed with Iris, it later proves useful in reconciling mothers and daughters. Ruby meets the charming and sweet "good Muslim boy" Ash, the clash between them is obvious, but their relationship is entirely believable. Ruby’s growth throughout the book is very realistic, at no point did I think anything she did was out of character. Thomas has cleverly kept the brashness, the stubbornness in Ruby’s character, even when she’s at her sweetest or most heroic.
What I loved most about this book was the setting. Thomas does a wonderful job recreating Egypt, using visuals that are already familiar to many of us thanks to films:
“The bike threaded on a narrow dirt road between what looked like very small square-built houses, with arched open doorways and lattice screened windows. A line of children skipped across in front of them and Ash called a warning, then they came to a paved yard where a flock of long-haired white and brown sheep bumped at a wooden feed trough. Between a pair of dusty acacia trees Ruby saw a high domed canopy sheltering a pair of stone tombs[.]”
If you like your romances thwarted and tragic, your heroines stubborn and infuriating, you couldn’t really do better than Iris & Ruby.
Harper, 2006. ISBN-10:0007173547. 400pp.