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Serenaby Ron Rash
Synopses & Reviews
The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton arrive from Boston in the North Carolina mountains to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains — but she soon shows herself the equal of any worker, overseeing crews, hunting rattlesnakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness.
Together, this Lord and Lady Macbeth of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she vengefully sets out to kill the son George had without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pemberton's intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.
Serena, the Lady Macbeth of Ron Rash's stirring new novel, wouldn't fret about getting out the damned spot. She wouldn't even wash her hands; she'd just lick it off. I couldn't take my eyes off this villainess, and any character who does ends up dead. Alluring and repellant, she's the engine in a gothic tale of personal mayhem and environmental destruction set in the mountains of North Carolina during... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the Depression. We meet her as the new bride of a timber baron arriving to survey 34,000 acres of virgin land that she and her husband, Pemberton, hope to strip as quickly as possible. The other investors don't bring their wives into the mountains like this, but Serena is no ordinary wife. At the start of the novel, the newlyweds are intercepted at the train station by the father of a pregnant 16-year-old girl. Pemberton can't even remember her name, but he doesn't doubt she's carrying his baby; Serena is unfazed. "You're a lucky man," she tells the girl's father, who's seething with drunken rage. "You'll not find a better sire to breed her with." Then she turns to the girl: "But that's the only one you'll have of his. I'm here now." Yikes, is she ever. Wearing her leather jodhpurs and black boots, she strides through the story that follows with frightening self-confidence. She speaks with unquestioned authority to Pemberton's employees, rough-hewn men who've lived in these isolated hills for generations. The orphaned daughter of a wealthy timber man in Colorado, she immediately impresses even the most skeptical lumberjacks with her shrewd knowledge of the business. She can calculate board feet just by glancing at a towering tree, and though she attended finishing school in New England, she prefers the Spartan accommodations of her husband's Appalachian camp. "Money freed to buy more timber tracts," she reassures him. Drill, baby, drill! Rash portrays them as the perfect power couple, not a match made in heaven, perhaps, but someplace much lower. "Their meeting wasn't mere good fortune," Serena insists, "but inevitability." A strapping, commanding man of 27, Pemberton is thrilled to have found a woman so in tune with his spirit, even if she sometimes pushes him toward actions more deadly than prudent. Nothing heats up their bed more than rubbing out a too-cautious investor or a potential opponent. Holding Serena in his arms, feeling her "severe keenness," he's filled with "a sense of being unshackled into some limitless possibility." "Serena" is a blazing expansion of a short story in Rash's 2007 collection, "Chemistry." Among other things, the longer form gives Rash room to set the ambitions of this rapacious couple against a seminal moment in the environmental movement. Even as Pemberton and Serena dream of denuding every mountain in Appalachia, the secretary of the interior, with backing from John D. Rockefeller, is aggressively buying up and seizing land for the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Owners like Pemberton could make a fortune by raping the land before they lost or sold it to the government. Rash gracefully folds this history into his fictional drama and includes several other real-life figures, such as the nature writer Horace Kephart. The political battle that rumbles in the background of the novel is all too sadly reminiscent of the one we're still fighting over vast tracts of untouched land. Rash, who teaches Appalachian cultural studies at Western Carolina University, constantly reminds us of what's at stake: "As the crews moved forward," he writes, "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." But Rash's description of the laborers is filled with awe for the hellish conditions they endure, working six 11-hour shifts a week, in all weather. When winter arrives, frostbite is a fair trade for snakebites. In startling, brief scenes, we see men sliced, impaled, drowned and crushed. "Some used cocaine to keep going and stay alert," he 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." As the Depression grinds on, though, there are always cheap, willing replacements. In addition to writing short stories, Rash is also a fine poet, and he brings a poet's concision and elliptical tendencies to this novel. As a result, these scenes and conversations constantly suggest more than they show, a technique that renders them alluring, sometimes erotic, often frightening. And his restraint is a necessity to keep this gothic tale from slipping into campiness. That's a real danger when you've got a beautiful murderess striding around the forest with a pet eagle on her wrist and a one-armed goon at her side. Frankly, it's sometimes difficult to catch the author's tone in these passages; the book seems deadly serious, but there are moments — the bizarre battle between Serena's eagle and a komodo dragon, for instance — when one suspects that Rash is rolling his eyes, too. But this is the challenge of the gothic novel: managing the accretion of excesses in a way that doesn't break the spell. The blind hag who delivers prophesies to the lumbermen, the insane preacher who warns of impending doom, even the portentous eclipse of the moon — all these details rise up just right. The only weakness may be Serena herself; as her ambitions begin to outpace her husband's, I couldn't help feeling that she was shrinking toward a caricature of evil. But by then, it's too hypnotic to break away from. Innocent people are in peril, and calamity seems as unstoppable as the millions of board feet Pemberton's men send surging down the river. And the final chapter is as flawless and captivating as anything I've read this year, a perfectly creepy shock that will leave you hearing nothing but the wind between the stumps. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Ron Rash's new novel Serena catapults him to the front ranks of the best American novelists. This novel will make a wonderful movie, and the brave actress who plays Serena is a shoe-in for an Academy Award nomination." Pat Conroy, author of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides
"Rash is a storyteller of the highest rank and Serena confirms this from the opening sentence to the final page. An epic achievement." Jeffrey Lent, author of In The Fall
"An Appalachian retelling of Macbeth, a thriller, a word-perfect evocation of an era and a people, a grim chapter in the history of conservation: if Serena doesn't finally win Ron Rash the overdue attention of the national literary (and cinematic) establishments, I can't imagine what they're holding out for." Arthur Phillips, author of Prague, The Egyptologist, Angelica
"[Rash] has outdone himself. The story of this brilliant, ambitious, seductive woman is a searing tragedy of Shakespearean proportions — or, in simpler terms, a damn good book that will keep you awake far too late and, well after you've finished it, haunt your dreams." Julia Glass, National Book Award winning author of Three Junes
A New York Times bestseller and PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist, Serena by award-winning author Ron Rash is “masterfully written…sprawling, engrossing and—from time to time—nightmarish,” (San Francisco Chronicle); a remarkable novel that “recalls both John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy,” (The New Yorker). Rashs chilling gothic tale of greed, corruption, and revenge set against the backdrop of the 1930s wilderness and Americas burgeoning environmental movement was named a Best Book of the Year by more than a dozen national publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, and Miami Herald. Serena is brilliant contemporary fiction that exquisitely balances beauty and violence, passion and rage, cruelty and love.
The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.
Rash's masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.
About the Author
Ron Rash's family has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since the mid-1700's, and it is this region that is the primary focus of his writing.
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