‘There’s just about enough good in Serena to make it worth recommending’ – Serena by Ron Rash

serenaReissued as a result of the film adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, Serena tells the story of a Depression era couple, Pemberton and his titular wife, who we meet as the book opens arriving on a train in Waynesville, North Carolina, to be greeted by business partners – and an angry father and his daughter, who is pregnant by Pemberton. Pemberton and Serena, we learn, have enjoyed something of a whirlwind romance (we glimpse various small moments from it, and slight warnings about Serena from various characters, as the novel proceeds), whilst Pemberton was clearing up his late father’s estate in Boston. The angry father demands a duel to the death, and death is swiftly enacted by Pemberton, in a scene that reveals how Pemberton and his cronies appear to have the town in their pockets, standing outside the law and largely ignoring local law man and officially last honest man standing McDowell.

Pemberton and his partners are busy, meanwhile, clearing vast swathes of woodland, selling timber with an eye on additional purchases they can make to grow their fortunes still further; they are opposed in this by a small group of people looking to build a national park, quite possibly with the backing of Nelson Rockefeller himself. The opening of the novel largely zings about between Pemberton and his cronies, the effect the addition of Serena has (she is a surprising, sexual, powerful woman and the men don’t quite know how to take her), and the developing relationship between Pemberton and Serena themselves. The crew of men busy taking their lives in their hands to chop down trees (chopping down trees being a career in which you can easily die, and death looming large over Serena) act as something of a chorus, throughout the entire book, commenting on what is going on and reacting to gossip and rumour in a way that contextualises some of the action. Later, when the action becomes somewhat pell mell, they also serve as the way in which we learn certain other characters have been dispatched.

As the title suggests, the novel largely revolves around Serena, who is a woman not quite typical of the age in which she lives. At first we see her as a powerful and ambitious woman – which would itself make for an interesting novel. From the off, we glimpse sides to both Serena and Pemberton that aren’t particularly nice (they’re rich, they don’t really give a crap about anything other than building their fortunes) and so the hop skip and jump to Macbeth territory doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Where it becomes problematic is in the ramping up of their activity. At first characters are dealt with after Serena whispers in her husband’s ear. Later, Serena adopts a one-handed henchman and he does all of the dispatching for her. In the beginning, characters are offed for presenting an obstacle to the Pemberton’s ambition; later, characters are offed simply for not wanting to work for them anymore. And no-one stands in their way. Pinkertons are bought off. Sheriffs are deposed. They are a slightly unbelievable unstoppable force. The lack of plausibility arises in part from the character of Serena herself, who grows more distant as the novels proceeds, but who is from the outset somewhat incredible, clearing large tracts of rattlesnakes by training an eagle who rides around on her gloved hand as she trots about, all lady of the manor. The novel also seems to suffer from a surfeit of action, all giddy with itself, characters dispatched left, right and centre, a great many off camera, towards the end of the book mentioned only in passing – and the truth is it becomes something of a cartoon, certainly as regards Serena and Pemberton.

But it’s not all bad news. Rash is strong on period detail (although, again, maybe he wears his research too much on his sleeve), and the way in which ‘modern’ knowledge (for the time) sits alongside old world mountain myth and magic is great to read. There is also a divergent narrative strand concentrating on Rachel Harmon, the young woman who had a brief pre-Serena fling with Pemberton and is busy struggling to raise Pemberton’s son nearby. Rash handles her travails sensitively and so by the point at which her drama intersects the Grand Guignol, the suspense feels earned. There are parts of the climax that are as riveting as Night of the Hunter. Similarly, when things start to go awry between Pemberton and his wife, Rash creates a couple of good scenes, one involving a photograph and one involving Pemberton and Serena’s henchman. All of which demonstrates that Rash has it in him to grab his readers by the lapels and drag them along when it’s called for, but the lapel grabbing isn’t consistent. Serena isn’t so much a rollercoaster, then, as a transom cab that gets bumpy on some of the mountain passes and occasionally stops to allow its passengers to take in the scenery. A Guardian review quoted on the back gets to the heart of the problem comparing Rash to both Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier. The McCarthy comparison is lazy but the Frazier quote is spot on. Rash is more of a commercial writer, a writer who enjoys vividly recreating a world for his readers, a writer more likely to make a safer choice than a risky one. He’s better (by far) than Frazier, who is largely terrible, but the weaknesses in Serena betray a lean towards the kinds of writing and the kinds of books Frazier writes (Cold Mountain – bleeurgh).

Any Cop?: There’s just about enough good in Serena to make it worth recommending, and just about enough in Rash to warrant a hint of excitement that at some point he’ll either do something great or go the full Frazier and have a massive hit and become something slightly different (one of those popular novelists whose books excite the masses by trading in broad strokes). Either way, we’ll continue to read and pay attention to see what he gets up to next.

 


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