Serena

By RON RASH

If there was an award for “Poet Laureate of Appalachia,” Ron Rash would certainly win it. In his fourth novel, Serena, Rash revisits the setting of his other books, this time to imbue the hills and hollers, as well as the hardscrabble inhabitants of the Depression-era North Carolina mountains with a lyric elegance that belies the violence of the plot. Plunging in straightaway (pun intended), the story begins with a deadly knife duel as George Pemberton steps off the train and into a tussle with the father of his former mistress, now pregnant with his child. Pemberton’s new bride, Serena, is eager to establish herself as her husband’s right hand, both in the business of overseeing a vast lumber empire, as well as dealing with the mother of a potentially pesky bastard. She steps in, coolly removes the knife from the chest of the dead man, and hands it to his daughter with advice to sell it. “It’s all you’ll ever get from my husband and me.” This astonishing juxtaposition of Serena’s cold, calculating beauty coupled with Pemberton’s sanguine earthiness is just one example of how deftly Rash has entwined his narrative’s poetic tenor with horrific accidents and the foretelling of chilling murders: “McDowell was in the room’s one cell pulling a dingy mattress off its spring base. As the sheriff did so, dust motes floated upward, suspended in the cell window’s barred light as if in a web.” As the Pembertons push their workers (often in harsh conditions) to decimate the snake-infested forest in the name of wealth and power, the result is this sometimes gothic, sometimes elegiac, altogether frightening tale that lays bare the consequence of ruthless ambition, while asking simply, “So what happens when there ain’t nothing left alive at all?”

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