A Review of Ron Rash’s “Serena”

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

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9 comments on “A Review of Ron Rash’s “Serena”

  1. Dave – another very insightful review. Ever thought about doing this stuff for a livin’?
    Serena sounds intriguing. I just picked my fave novel of the year, although 08 isn’t over yet. I just LOVED ‘Being Written’ by William Conescu. Maybe a bit mondane for your educated taste, but seriously entertaining and wickedly funny.
    Rebecca~

    P.S. My second novel is in the editing mill. Once published I’d like your review on it 🙂

    Rebecca, I hadn’t heard of Being Written before–sounds like a twisted modern update of The Comforters by Muriel Spark. –DHS

  2. Jess says:

    I LOVE it…can’t put it down…

    Jess, I knew you would. –DHS

  3. possum1027 says:

    Just finished reading “Serena” – book was incredible. I was very disappointed that Rash included a Coda at the end. It really detracted from the book as it would have been much better to leave the ending as is.

    Possum, I agree…to leave it open-ended where each reader decided for themselves what happened to Serena would’ve been a far more fitting way to end the otherwise amazing novel. The coda should’ve been cut. –DHS

  4. possum1027 says:

    Hey Arthur,
    You read any other good books by Rash or any other in his mold lately? I really enjoy historical fiction. Thanks

    I don’t know who this Arthur is, but if you like historical fiction along these lines I would also recommend The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen. I reviewed it awhile back:

    https://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/a-review-of-thomas-mullens-the-last-town-on-earth/

    –DHS

    • Marshall Gravely says:

      In regrds to Ron Rash’s work his two of his novels are also great: One Foot in Eden and The World Made Straight.
      Saints at the River is not as good but still entertaining. The Last Town on Earth by Millen was also very good,and had a quite haunting ending.In terms of other historical fiction I would recommend Howard Bahr’s books.

      Thanks for the suggestions, Marshall. –DHS

  5. k9alliance says:

    Folks- I beg to differ on the addition of the Coda on Ron Rash’s book “Serena”. Without that ending, Pemberton simply died and a fictictious story ended.

    The murder that took place in South America, may have been Jacob seeking revenge as a young adult… I don’t know for sure but maybe…

    I thought it was quite clear it was Jacob…and it took away the reader’s ability to “imagine” Serena’s ultimate fate for themselves. It destroyed the illusion of her mythic stature in my mind…and that was one of the book’s greatest appeals. –DHS

  6. Arti says:

    Thanks for introducing Ron Rash to me with your excellent review. It’s interesting that you mentioned in your comment on my blog that it’s more like “There Will Be Blood” meeting Macbeth. From the quote here: “a moth in the twilight…a touch of the hand”, it conjures up in my mind an image of Kawabata’s <emSnow Country… sounds like Rash is a writer of the world.

    Arti – I would say Rash is a writer of his world – and his world is Appalachia (specifically North Carolina). I’ve read some of his short fiction as well, and it’s all been based there. Very vivid. –DHS

  7. Well, the long delayed film adaptation is now on VOD (and soon to be dumped in a few theaters at the end of the month) – and it’s worse than you could ever imagine:

    https://theschleicherspin.com/2015/03/16/is-serena-the-worst-book-to-film-adaptation-in-the-history-of-cinema/

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