A lifetime of memories of another era, of love & dancing, of passion, of life and of death crowd Iris' mind, and confusing them with old age or loneliness she is consumed by worry that they will slip from her grasp like a cup and shatter, lost for ever. Ruby, her eighteen year old granddaughter, battling her own demons, some of which are expanded on more fully than others, arrives in Cairo barely knowing Iris, but eventually the joining of grandmother and granddaughter allows them both to heal and in telling Ruby her stories, and facing her daughter, Lesley, Iris is able to finally be at peace.
Iris & Ruby is narrated by Iris yet moves easily into the third person when describing events through Ruby's eyes. Memories of Iris in Cairo during the war are intertwined with episodes of Ruby's exploration of Cairo some 60 years later. It is an intriguing book and at times reminded me in part of The English Patient, partially through context (Cairo, the desert) and partially through the desire to ensure that memories have been told, voiced, images becoming real in being given a voice, before the end.
Iris' wartime Cairo seems at once glamorous and carefree yet tinged, as life in wartime surely was, with that steely determination to live life as if it was for the last time. It seemed an endless round of parties, cocktails, silk dresses and dances with army boys, but these descriptions conceal their harder, less glamorous reflection of the reality of a young women in love with a soldier, waiting anxiously for his return, filling her days with work and friends and airmail letters. Although reading the synopsis of the book tells the reader that Iris' one true love is never to return from the desert, I still found myself willing him to return. Even though I knew from the beginning that they would never reach their wedding day, I still cried when they didn't.
I don't think Iris ever did 'get over' losing Xan. I don't think, in actual fact, that you do 'get over' losing your true love. I think time and distance helps one deal with living. I don't know, thankfully, but that is my belief. I found it telling that Iris returned to Cairo, to a house where she had known Xan, as soon as she was able to escape her daughter who could never be the son she had lost. In contrast, the death of Ruby's boyfriend Jas was the catalyst for her departure to Cairo but her grief for Jas was not in the same league. Rather I think the incident Ruby touches on when she says "I don't want you to touch me ever again" to a family member is the more serious issue, as is the fleeting glimpse we are given in to her thoughts when she is at a nightclub with Ash: "She was used to trading elements of herself as a powerful currency, the dollar standard, with everyone from boys she met in clubs to Will (the family member). She had been doing it since she was fifteen. Only Jas had been different". Perhaps Lesley's grief in relation to her mother (Iris) - someone doesn't have to die for there to be grief, I don't think - especially since the issue was unresolved, had affected Ruby to the extent that she had begun to believe that she had to give something to be loved and wanted, that it wasn't an automatic right, and that giving her body was the only thing she had.
Iris' relationship with Xan was easy. Not in the sense of not knowing where he was, terrified that he would never return, but in that they both seemed to know, immediately, that they were each other's. "...That was how certain we both wanted and believed... 'I love you, Iris Black,' he said. 'Xan Molyneau, I love you too.'..." They had found each other and each was quite sure . In contrast, Ruby's relationship with Ash plays out in the same city but with none of the same surety. Even Ash's words are different "Perhaps I love you" he says. A product of a different era or an underlying emphasis that sometimes you know immediately, other times a relation creeps up on you?
Grief and relationships. Relationships between lovers, between mother & daughter, grand-mother & grand-daughter. Grief over death, of things that might have been, of people being someone that they are not. The hardest part of considering this book was the knowledge that next month I would be discussing it at a book group at which the author will be present. And that the book was deeply moving and is often concerned with the two things hardest to discuss honestly.