Ruby Red Skies
By Taslim Burkowicz
364 Pages, $24.00
In Ruby Red Skies, Taslim Burkowicz’s third novel, the destinies of Ruby and Rubina—two women separated by four centuries of history but united by an eternal quest for love and independence—intertwine in a story full of adventure, history, and self-discovery.
As the story begins, Ruby, her name evoking the deepest, richest of red shades, has settled into a less than bright existence. Growing up in a broken Indian Muslim home in 1990’s Vancouver, Ruby becomes an unhappy wife and mother after an unexpected teenage pregnancy. The crumbling of her marriage nineteen years later is the catalyst for an overdue search for meaning and fulfillment in a novel that takes us from a forest fires-ravaged British Columbia in the 2010s, to the largest court in early 17th century India.
BC-based Burkowicz is best when creating a sense of place and time, in particular a present-day Vancouver populated by characters who are borderline hostile to women of a certain age and background. Ruby’s story spans twenty years from 1997 to 2017 and is rooted in young Ruby’s love and knowledge of music, with her character having passionate discussions about the death of Grunge or the naïveté of white suburban teenagers trying to inhabit the lyrics of Biggie or Tupac. The older Ruby’s world is coloured by entitled Vancouverites of the modern variety, including her cruelly dismissive husband, Trevor, and her beautiful but self-centered best friend, Bella, a lover of “Starbucks soy vanilla lattes and brand name yoga apparel.”
While Ruby’s mid-life unraveling in present-day Vancouver is compelling in its familiarity, the most vivid and immersive prose is dedicated to depicting Rubina’s world, a sumptuous court at the height of the Mughal Empire, which ruled much of the Indian subcontinent for over 300 years. Rubina, a young and talented dancer is hand-picked by a prince to be a performer at court. While initially flattered by the opportunity, Rubina soon realizes she must fight to retain her freedom and avoid a life of golden imprisonment in the King’s harem.
Whether submerging the reader in “the honey scent of the many flowered trees and bushes” of the court’s gardens, describing the “layer of fog yet covering the densely packed red mud huts” of the medieval city of Agra, or the bejeweled riches of the Empire, Burkowicz shines in these passages, creating a real sense of distance in time and space from the present-day narrative.
Ultimately, Ruby, a faded jewel in search of her lost self-value and shine, will connect with Rubina’s story through her desire to rediscover her Indian heritage. In so doing, she will be one in a long line of women fighting for their freedom and right to passion and love on their own terms.