Our sweet-natured, sad-soul heroine Laurel anticipating her life to begin after a string of bad luck toiling away in the gloaming of the titular cove. Waiting for love to find her.
Hank, Laurel’s brother who has returned home from Europe after losing his hand, newly betrothed and anticipating a fresh life to begin outside of the shadow of his cursed homestead.
The handsome flute-playing mute named Walter who finds his way into the cove and into Laurel’s heart always looking over his shoulder anticipating his good luck to run out and his past (and the authorities) to catch up to him.
A nation anticipating their native sons to return from a war-torn Europe to safer shores.
The reader anticipating something…anything…interesting to happen in Ron Rash’s lukewarm but evocative Southern-spun WWI-era gothic romance. Don’t worry…it does…eventually.
It’s telling that Rash would follow-up his masterpiece, Serena, with a novel drenched in atmosphere and taking place in a gloomy hollow, eternally in the shadows of the Appalachian mountains (the same mountains where in Serena the Pemberton timber empire loomed ominously and supreme) which cast darkness on the hearts of the inhabitants there. It’s almost as if Serena Pemberton is casting the greatest shadow, as Rash will never be able to conjure a character to match her nor can one imagine a follow-up novel that could scale the same mythic heights.
Whereas in the ferociously entertaining Serena an eagle and a komodo dragon were set loose across Depression era Carolina mountains, here in the pleasantly time-passing The Cove, Rash gives us the Carolina parakeet, nearly extinct by the time America enters WWI.
Witness the following passage detailing a childhood memory of Laurel’s:
“…but she just stood watching as two dozen birds pecked and hopped and preened among the branches. It was like their bodies had knit together and lifted the whole cove skyward into the sun’s full light.” (pg 76)
This is followed immediately by Laurel’s father running out of the cabin and shooting down the parakeets one by one for fear they were ransacking his crops. The parakeets fly around in a circle over their fallen brethren while being picked off by the rifle. Stupid creatures, Laurel’s father thinks they are. But you see…these parakeets will never leave a member of the flock behind. It eventually leads to the downfall of the whole lot. Ah…epic foreshadowing…and myopic brutality…that’s a hint of the Ron Rash we love. Sadly, there’s not enough of this.
Another aspect that kept The Cove from soaring was what I found to be a tiresome WWI backdrop. For whatever reason this has become a popular milieu of late from Thomas Mullen’s novel The Last Town on Earth to the back story of Jimmy Darmody on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Critics love to draw parallels between WWI and more recent Middle East conflicts, noting that both were reluctantly fought and unpopular on the home fronts. While I feel exploring the impacts of any war on those who fight them is a noble effort, can’t we all finally agree that the Empirical Europe of the early 20th century is not the same as the Iraq or Afghanistan of the early 21st century?
Something interesting does eventually happen in The Cove. There’s a great little episode finely detailing the digging of a well, and the dark claustrophobia inherent in the conclusion of said act gave this reader with a fear of falling down a well real chills.
“The barrel descended, still moving through amber, but moving. You would hear the water if it were so close…But not if water filled the cavern to the ceiling. There would be no sound now and none when he was immersed. He would be in an inescapable darkness but, even worse, a place of endless silence. Forever.” (pg 211)
And then, of course, there’s the sprawling and abrupt mayhem of the novel’s closing twenty pages. The Cove’s prologue (taking place in the 1950’s when a skull is unearthed from a well before the cove is sent to a watery grave as part a controlled flooding of a river) telegraphs the brutal violence of the closing chapters. If there was one misstep in Serena, it was the brief coda at the end where Serena’s ultimate fate was too clearly realized and thus robbed the reader of letting their imagination soar. Rash seems to have learned from this as he provides instead here a prologue that ads an air of mystery. By novel’s end, we have a pretty good idea of whose skull it is, but exactly who put it there is something left to the imagination of the reader.
All in all, The Cove is a well-crafted read full of Rash’s poetic and lucid passages and effortless ability to keep the pages turning with vivid places and stock characters – including a cartoonish villain named Chauncey Feith and a grizzled but kindhearted old moonshiner named Slidell. His clarity of period vernacular and arcane phrasing is unparalleled. There’s also a hint again of being inspired by Shakespearean tragedies. If Serena smelled the same blood of Macbeth, then The Cove surely caught a whiff of the bittersweet and doomed romance of Romeo & Juliet. If Rash doesn’t fully belief in curses, he surely does in fate and self-fulfilling prophecies. Only bad things happen in this cove, the characters believe, and even when goodness shines a light on their grave predicament, Rash’s characters can’t help but stay focused on their own demise.
The Cove is a quick read. It’s a good read, albeit a bit shallower than we are used to from Mr. Rash. But while Serena, four years later, still sits smoldering on my bookshelf…The Cove feels a bit damp. It may seem unfair to compare this new novel to his magnum opus, which I imagine people will be still be reading voraciously 150 years from now, but there’s no denying the shadow Serena casts. When you’ve accomplished something that towering, it will always be a defining marker in your career.
There was Before. There was Serena. And now there is After.
The Cove coasts along comfortably in the troubling Appalachian waters lit by a dim after glow.
Meanwhile, this reader and fan eagerly anticipates something a little more next time from Mr. Rash.
Written by David H. Schleicher