Monday, December 01, 2008

Bring on the body count

In first quarter or so of Ron Rash's Serena, I thought the book was over-hyped. Sure, the writing was good, and I thought the demonic Serena was fascinating, in the manner of a poisonous snake. These feelings fell away as I read late into the night and started anew Thanksgiving morning. I brought the book with me to my mother-in-law's, hoping I might steal away for some quiet reading time. No such luck, but just as well, as I would have distracted.

The book opens as Serena and her newlywed husband George Pemberton arrive at his North Carolina lumber camp. The arrival is a tad awkward as his pregnant former girlfriend is waiting for him, along with her furious father. The unhappy and violent results of the encounter sets the tone and the principal conflict for the book. The Pembertons rule the camp like feudal lords and have as much regard for their loggers as a medieval baron might for his cannon fodder. Whether by accident or by plan, the life expectancy in the camp isn't terribly high.

Perhaps because the death toll is so great, Rash avoids depicting all but the most important of deaths. Instead he uses a Greek chorus consisting of a few lumberjacks discussing lumber camp goings on, which include the latest victims of the Pembertons. This both keeps the plot movie and it allows Rash to concentrate on the warped Serena and the crumbling George. The character of Serena is nearly too much. She is part Ayn Rand wet dream, part Lady MacBeth, and part Keyser Soze. It helps that Serena is mostly spoken of, rather than shown. This helps prevent her descent into cliche.

Despite the period setting, the book is definitely of the moment. The Pembertons and their allies are racing to cut as many trees as they can before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is created. As that becomes more challenging, Serena turns her eye to the unregulated Amazon. The environmental message is clear, but so is the criticism of the market unbound.

Avoid reading the fly leaf cover. Far too many spoilers. Of course, I read it and still loved the book.


Jen said...

Hi there. Was pointed in the direction of this blog and was happy to see the Ron Rash review. Have you read his other novels? I haven't picked up Serena yet but wondered how it compares to One Foot in Eden or Saints at the River (my favorite so far of his novels).

Tripp said...


Serena was my first Rash novel, but I would certainly like to read more of them. From reading the descriptions, I think Serena would be a fair bit more gothic. The title character is a barely disguised demon. I will be looking for Rash's other books, in hopes that I enjoy them as much as I did this one.