techeditor, October 29, 2012 (view all comments by techeditor)
In SERENA by Ron Rash, Serena is married to Pemberton, co-owner of a lumber company, in 1929 North Carolina. From the start, you will see that the two deserve each other; they are both ruthlessly ambitious. Eventually you will see that Serena is much more than ruthless, and Pemberton, as mean as he is, didn't know what he got himself into.
Although Serena’s heartlessness is obvious to the reader, other aspects of this character are mysteries. For example, of her past we know only that she grew up out West with her father, also owner of a lumber company. After he died, she burned down their house and moved to Boston. That’s it.
Throughout the book Serena is mysterious. I expected answers to the mysteries, but that’s not Rash’s style.
For some reason, another character is often overlooked in most other reviews of this book: Rachel. Rachel is a former kitchen worker for the lumber company. She is also the sixteen-year-old who Pemberton impregnated, then left to fend for herself after he killed her father.
Rash writes beautifully and that may keep you reading long enough to see that SERENA is American literature. But this literature has the problem I find with several other books of literature: it lacks enough story, at least in the first 200 pages. Throughout the book, Rash describes characters and scenery so well, but he doesn’t do much with plot until after a couple hundred pages.
However, please DO STICK WITH IT. There IS plot as well as character development. It is an excellent story, and it DOES get unputdownable.
The end was no surprise to me, though; I expected it. But I didn't expect that to be the end. I wanted the story to continue. Good books end too soon.
Mary Akers, May 9, 2009 (view all comments by Mary Akers)
In the opening scene of Ron Rash’s excellent new novel Serena, George Pemberton, ruthless and land-hungry timber baron, returns by train to his holdings near Asheville, NC in 1929, with Serena, his wife of two days, in tow. There to meet them at the station are Rachel Harmon—a former camp employee who is carrying Pemberton’s unborn child—and her angry father, bent on revenge. At Serena’s urging, Pemberton quickly settles the score, leaving his opponent disemboweled, the young girl fatherless, and the witnesses at the depot speechless.
Upon returning to camp, the first thing Serena does to establish her own ruthless authority is to size up a nearby cane ash and make a public bet with the skeptical cutting-crew foreman as to the total board feet the tree will yield. Unfortunately for the foreman, he takes Serena’s bet. When the tree is cut and timbered and the results publicly revealed, his fateful bet loses him not only two weeks’ pay, but also his job—leaving no doubt among his fellow timber men as to who is in charge.
From that day forward, woe to any partners, employees, lawmen, or doctors who dare to desert, mislead, or challenge the rising Pemberton dynasty. Serena, as a sideline to her day job of overseeing the cutting and transport of timber, proceeds to import and tame a wild eagle, teaching it to hunt and destroy the area’s deadly timber rattlers, launching its aerial attacks from an imposing perch atop Serena’s forearm, while she sits astride her white Arabian stallion. When the eagle drops one of its victims, and a six-foot venomous snake falls from the sky, landing at the feet of the camp’s preacher, the man goes mad and is removed from his position, attracting unsavory interest and speculation from his fellow workers for months to follow.
The story of the Pembertons’ rise to power takes an even more violent turn when Serena—who wears jodhpurs and boots like a man—becomes pregnant, carries to term, then tragically loses the child, as well as her ability to conceive any future children; on the surface she copes, but underneath it all her vengeful and vindictive tendencies thrive.
When Serena’s quick tourniquet saves the life of a loner/worker whose hand is accidentally severed, she wins the blind loyalty of both him and his mantic mother, gaining a devoted henchman to do her diabolical bidding. Twenty-six months after the honeymoon train ride from Boston, Serena sets out to kill the child her husband fathered before they met. Her first foray into the surrounding hills fails to reveal the child’s whereabouts, but Serena manages to carry out her first longed-for murder: the innocent Widow Jenkins who had been caretaker of the boy. “We’ve both killed now,” Serena tells her husband urgently. “What you felt at the depot, I’ve felt, too. We’re closer, Pemberton, closer than we’ve ever been before.” And for the first time, we get a glimpse of the Lady Macbeth she has become, and the latent tendency that had been there all along. After her sinister pronouncement, her husband muses thusly:
"Madness, Pemberton thought, and remembered the first evening back in Boston, the walk down the cobbled streets to Serena’s lodging, the hollow sound of their footsteps. He remembered the moment he’d stood on the icy step as Serena unlocked the door and went inside, pressed the front room light on. Even when Serena had turned and smiled, Pemberton had lingered. Some dim troubling, almost visceral, keeping him there on the step, in the cold, outside the door. He remembered how he’d pulled off his gloves and stuffed them in his overcoat pocket, brushed some snow flurries off his shoulders as he delayed his entrance a few more moments. Then he’d stepped inside, stepping toward this room as well, into this moment."
When her latest obsession reveals itself (“just us” she says, passionately kissing Pemberton before setting out under cover of darkness) her husband’s own desire to save the child who already bears such a striking resemblance to his father, initiates the slow unraveling of their marriage leading, ultimately and cataclysmically, to a conclusion so shocking that even though we sense it coming we think “no!” as we read—“no, surely not.” But readers can rest assured, under Ron Rash’s masterful pen and meticulous unfolding narrative, the dramatic conclusion is both thematically and cinematically right for the story. We arrive there breathless, incredulous, but strangely and supremely satisfied.
This is a finely crafted, beautifully rendered, and classically tragic tale of human ambition run amok. I have been a fan of Rash’s work for years, but this surely is his best, most artful novel yet.
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wewells, March 3, 2009 (view all comments by wewells)
Unflinching narcissism and unadulterated malevolence - this is what you’ll find in spades from the characters in Ron Rash’s book “Serena”. There are characters with redeeming qualities as well, but as you might imagine, those that are not strong and sure, quickly fall.
Using the historic backdrop of a Depression era lumber camp in 1929, “Serena” is largely an Appalachian retelling of Macbeth with a few twists of its own, so expect a tragic tale with a lot of wickedness and you’re ready for one enjoyable read!
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by Pat Conroy, author of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides,
"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."
by Jeffrey Lent, author of In The Fall,
"Rash is a storyteller of the highest rank and Serena confirms this from the opening sentence to the final page. An epic achievement."
by Arthur Phillips, author of Prague, The Egyptologist, Angelica,
"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."
by Julia Glass, National Book Award winning author of Three Junes,
"[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."
by Harper Collins,
A New York Timesbestseller 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.
by Harper Collins,
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.
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