With his ambitious novel, Serena, Ron Rash creates a new American legend.
The Great Depression enshrouds the nation. In the Western Carolina highlands, George Pemberton and his indomitable new wife, Serena, are forging a powerful timber empire come hell or high water. If someone or something gets in their way…there will be blood. This is the milieu of dread where Ron Rash’s new novel, Serena, lingers. Three things soon stand in Serena’s path: her husband’s bastard child, Jacob; the child’s young mother, Rachel Harmon; and a groundswell of conservatism looking to incorporate the Pemberton timber tracts into a national park. Thus two women come at a crossroads, both empowered by their innate wills to survive: Serena feasting off her insatiable greed while Rachel is driven by the unstoppable love for her child.
From the opening passage, Rash grabs us by the throat and never let’s go:
“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.”
It’s refreshing to read a novel so well constructed. Rash tells his story with precise details, simply and chronologically, without overly flowery descriptions or “look, Mom, no hands” style wordplay. His novel is designed as the type of thing English professors love to teach, as close to a perfectly structured book as one would find in modern literature, and one that most of them would also kill to have written. With careful restraint Rash slips in his metaphors while he classically uses foreshadowing and foils and judiciously inserts brief flashbacks to slowly develop characters, each new revelation like a layer of onion peeling off, and likewise could bring a reader to tears. His sense of reality is gritty and textured while his scope of imagination scales mythic heights.
Though many advanced reviews have compared Rash’s magnum opus to Shakespeare (and that comparison is more than apt), the author blends liberally elements from other classic time periods. Like the ancient playwrights of Athens, he turns the supporting cast of camp workers into a Greek chorus, commenting on, cowering to, and philosophizing about the Pembertons and the fate of their empire. Like the most chilling of Gothic novels, he creates a brooding and picturesque sense of place where the dangerous beasts of Appalachia, the pillaged timber and smoky mountains mirror the unchecked ids, capacities for violence and shades of darkness lurking in the psyches of the main characters.
Ron Rash’s Serena reads like a great film, his arrangement of words evoking powerful images that flicker in our minds, his prose giving birth to characters so real you feel like you can touch them. Though it clocks it at close to four-hundred pages, Serena is full of crackling period dialogue and gut wrenching action that will make your blood boil. Serena is nothing if not ferociously entertaining. There’s rarely a dull moment. Witness a brutal knife fight in the first ten pages, a thrilling bear hunt about sixty pages later, or a battle between a komodo dragon and an eagle about three fourths of the way through. However, as it winds down, the novel loses some of its narrative momentum where the action becomes episodic and choppy. While there was never the momentous showdown this reader had dreamt of, the book’s finale packs a potent bite, though an unnecessary (and thankfully brief) coda in the closing pages should’ve been cut to allow the reader’s imagination to run wild.
With George and Serena Pemberton, Rash has given us two towering, unforgettable, unrelenting characters rivaling the greatest any man or woman has conjured since the beginning of time. Yet for all its epic swells of literary brilliance, it’s the small moments that will haunt the reader long after the pages have been turned…like Rachel visiting her father’s grave and recalling a moment involving “a moth in the twilight…a touch of the hand” (page 51). And as you turn the pages of Serena, watch your hand tremble, and let your imagination soar on the wings of a moth through the sooty mountains of your soul’s darkest dreams. Then you’ll realize an inescapable truth: Serena has devoured you.
Written by David H. Schleicher