Saturday, May 14, 2011
Book Review - Serena by Ron Rash
Ron Rash’s novel, Serena takes place in 1929 in western North Carolina. Serena is the beautiful orphaned daughter of a wealthy Colorado timber man and the new wife of George Pemberton, who hopes to make his fortune by stripping, as quickly as possible, 34,000 acres of trees in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, then moving on to the mahogany forests of Brazil.
We meet Serena for the first time when she and Pemberton – who are part of The Boston Lumber Company – arrive at a North Carolina train station and are intercepted by the father of Rachel Harmon, a sixteen-year-old girl who just happens to be carrying Pemberton’s child. Pemberton, however, can’t even remember the girl’s name, though he doesn’t doubt for one second that he’s the unborn child’s father. In this opening scene, we see that Serena is no ordinary wife. “You’re a lucky man,” Serena tells Rachel’s father, who is seething with drunken anger. “You’ll not find a better sire to breed her with.” Serena then turns to Rachel, “But that’s the only one you’ll have of his. I’m here now.” And so she is.
Serena, who attended a New England finishing school and prefers leather jodhpurs and black boots to ball gowns and the Spartan accommodations of the lumber camps to any well furnished mansion, initially impresses Pemberton’s lumberjacks with her shrewd business knowledge. This is a woman who can calculate board feet – correctly – just by glancing at a tree still in the ground. As Serena surveys her husband’s empire – and barks orders to his men – she rides about on the white Arabian stallion that was a wedding gift from her husband. “The world is ripe, and we’ll pluck it like an apple from a tree,” Serena tells her husband, and in the early pages of this novel, it seems they will.
Serena and Pemberton are, it would seem, the perfect couple. And Serena even agrees to let Rachel stay as the logging camp dishwasher. After all, she needs money to raise Pemberton’s child because Pemberton, as ordered by Serena, isn’t going to be supplying any. “Just don't let her near our food,” Serena tells George, in a conjugal “moment of recognition” of the Pembertons’ mortality.
Serena is an expansion of a short story found in Rash’s 2007 collection, Chemistry. I’m one who’s very glad he made the decision to expand the story into a full-length novel. Expanding the story, of course, allowed Rash to include some very interesting subplots that a short story, by reason of its length and purpose, couldn’t accommodate. One of the most interesting, for me, at least, was the subplot revolving around the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tennessee side of which is possibly my favorite place in the entire United States.
While Pemberton and Serena dream of denuding the forests of Appalachia and making a fortune in the process, the Secretary of the Interior, with backing from John D. Rockefeller, no less, is quickly buying up property in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee for the creation of the park. Of course, we know who won that one, but that doesn’t stop the book from being intense and suspenseful. Even though I knew “how it all turned out,” I was still a little heartsick when I read how this avaricious husband and wife were raping the beautiful Appalachian hills:
As the crews moved forward, they left behind an ever-widening wasteland of stumps and slash, brown clogged creeks awash with dead trout.... The valley and ridges resembled the skinned hide of some huge animal.
Trees aren’t the only things that are expendable in the world the Pembertons inhabit. The loggers and lumberjacks who work for the Pembertons are, the newlyweds decide, easily replaced with other loggers and lumberjacks. In fact, the Pembertons' employees are so replaceable that Cheney, the cruel and indifferent doctor they employ, asks them if an injured logger is really worth saving before treating the man. And Serena, we learn, actually enjoys finding new ways of ridding herself of those for whom she no longer has any use, and choosing the applicable suffering to be inflicted on him or her. One of those with whom Serena disagrees is her new husband’s business partner, Buchanan, who makes the mistake of deciding to offer the workers a dime a day raise and who isn’t averse to being bought out by the government. Once we learn Buchanan’s thoughts on these matters, we know the poor man won’t be long for this world.
It isn’t until Serena learns that she’ll never be able to give George a child, however, that we see the full force of her “Lady Macbeth” madness. This bit of unfortunate news causes the Pembertons’ intense marriage and passionate rape of the land to unravel, and this Gothic and rather operatic book is headed for a shocking, but somewhat predictable conclusion.
Serena is a hypnotically terrifying novel, but it isn’t graphic. Thankfully, Rash has kept most of the murders “off stage,” and many of the novel’s scenes suggest more than they actually show, leaving the worst of things up to the reader’s imagination. This is due, I think, to Rash’s abilities as a first rate poet. He knows how to condense his material; he knows how to suggest, rather than spell everything out for his reader. That, however, doesn’t lessen the book’s chilling power, and that’s an enormously big point in Rash’s favor. One of the challenges of the Gothic novel, a challenge many writers fail, is keeping the atmosphere chillingly creepy, while piling on one excess after the other. Rash succeeds, in part due to his Greek chorus of Carolinian loggers, led by Snipes, who supply some much needed dark humor in this dark and melodramatic book.
Rash is wonderful at describing these rough-hewn laborers, who work six days a week, eleven hours a day, for the driven Pembertons. The men are pursued by snakebite in the summer, frostbite in the winter, and in every season they face falling trees, logjams, axes and saws, and if that isn’t enough, it’s rumored that a panther is stalking the mountains. The loggers deal with things as best they can:
Some used cocaine to keep going and stay alert," Rash writes, "because once the cutting began a man had to watch for axe blades glancing off trees and saw teeth grabbing a knee and the tongs on the cable swinging free or the cable snapping... If you could gather up all the severed body parts and sew them together, you'd gain an extra worker every month.
The lyrically written narrative alternates between the cold and calculating Serena and the very human Rachel Harmon, the mother of George Pemberton’s infant son. While both women are initially complex and masterfully drawn, when Serena’s ambitions begin to become a bit too much, even for her greedy husband, I thought Rash was flirting with caricature rather than character. Luckily, this doesn’t happen until near the novel’s end, and Rash manages to rescue his story. Still, I think Serena might have been a more powerful novel had Rash given his main character (I can’t force myself to write “heroine”) some measure of humanity, some little weakness. Still, Serena is a powerful indictment of the logging industry and of unbridled greed in general.
Serena, despite its tendency toward excess, is a genuinely haunting, creepy, and hypnotic book, and that’s exactly why I loved reading it. The final pages are truly fascinating – in a sinister sort of way – and I found myself reading late into the night in order to finish. And once I turned the final page, I found myself thinking of that ending – over and over and over again.
Recommended: If you like dark and creepy novels and can tolerate a book in which almost nothing good happens, yes. The only criticism I have of the book is that Serena, herself is so evil she almost veers into caricature. Almost, but not quite. I know several readers who did not like the Coda and thought the book would have been better had Rash left it out. I disagree. For me, the Coda is what made this book truly haunting and truly memorable.