Reviewed by Harriet Devine
She stinks. It has to be said. Stinks to high heaven. No, worse, stinks like death. This is not just a smell, an unpleasant odour to be carried away on the next breeze, it’s a stench, a pestilence that violates the space she enters and damns the air where she has been.
Most people, in the Western world at least, will have had the experience of encountering a ragged, smelly old woman – a bag lady – in the street, and rapidly crossing the road to avoid her. If you are a compassionate sort of person, you might wonder briefly what led her to live like this, but probably that’s as far as it goes. Just that sort of woman – Old Rosa – is central to the plot of Keir Alexander’s debut novel, and, unlike in real life, we do get to find out her trajectory to her present sad condition.
Set in New York City, The Ruby Slippers is the story of a group of apparently disparate people whose lives become intertwined because of Rosa, or rather because of something Rosa possesses. For before the end of Chapter Two, Rosa herself has been knocked down in the street and is in a coma. But Rosa has a nephew, Michael, who runs an old fashioned Deli, and who provides her with food and other necessities. Once Michael learns of her accident, he forces himself to go to her flat and start the dreadful task of clearing out the decades of filth and detritus with which she has surrounded herself. And in among it all, carefully preserved in a gold box, he finds a pair of “red, raised-heel shoes, shapely and covered exquisitely with sequins and topped off across the bridge with a neat, gleaming bow”. These are indeed the very shoes worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, and Michael soon discovers that they are immensely valuable.
It’s this discovery that sets in motion all the events that follow. First of all, it causes terrible dissention in Michael’s own family. He would like to keep the slippers, for his aunt’s sake, but his wife and daughters are determined to sell them. And that’s not all. Into the mix come Harrison, a disaffected and drug addicted teenager who wants to steal the slippers, James, a gay librarian, who is persuaded to set up a trust to bid for them as a memorial to his recently dead partner, James’s daughter Siobhan, who has been turned against James by her angry mother but longs to be reunited with him, and more besides. Much initial unhappiness results from all these disparate wishes and desires, but in the end, everything gets sorted out and it all ends more or less happily ever after, or so we hope.
So yes, this is a sort of fairy story, if you want to see it that way. But it’s more than that, I think. It’s also about redemption, reassessment, reconnection, rediscovery. These are all played out in their various ways in the variety of relationships that are formed or strengthened over the course of the novel. At the start, almost everyone in the novel is grieving, in one way or another, and as the events take their course, almost everyone sees light at the end of their particular tunnel. All these various trajectories are interesting and ultimately heart-warming, but the prime interest of the story is what happens to Michael as a result of finding, not just the slippers, but also Rosa’s written account of her flight from Latvia at the age of eighteen, her early years in America, her life in Hollywood, and her ultimate descent into the sad and grim conditions of her later life. Michael himself is Latvian, but having arrived in New York with his family as a child, he has few memories of his birthplace and little idea of the terrible and often terrifying hardships endured by people such as Rosa, who escaped from Europe at the end of the 1930s only just in time to avoid imprisonment and probable death. He has looked after his aunt all his life out of a sense of duty, but what he learns about her past brings about an crucial change in his attitude to her. Sadly this must remain retrospective, as Rosa will not survive the results of her accident, but nevertheless it is an important moment for him, and his life will never be quite the same.
With so many happy resolutions, the novel could have been in danger of falling into sentimentality, but there’s enough gritty realism in the mix to avoid it. An attractive, informative and entertaining read.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and wouldn’t mind a pair of ruby slippers of her own.
Keir Alexander, The Ruby Slippers (Corsair: London, March 2014). 978-1472108074, 432 pp., hardback.
There’s a Q&A with Keir Alexander in the BookBuzz section, which you can read here.