Book ReviewsSerena

Book written by: Ron Rash, Ecco, 384 pages, $25.99


In his powerful novel Serena, Ron Rash offers a haunting depiction of greed, inhumanity, and single-minded ambition. Put in more stark terms, he writes about the force of evil.


Set in the Appalachians of Western North Carolina during the Great Depression, the book tells the story of a logging company owner named Pemberton and his new wife, Serena. Though she is a stranger to the region, Serena's understanding of logging and her physical strength quickly earn the respect of the men around her. Her eccentric ambition earns their fear. In an early illustration of this woman's extraordinary will, she trains an eagle to hunt the rattlesnakes that threaten the loggers. As she rides through the mountains on her white Arabian horse, the eagle perched on her arm, she draws comparisons to mythic and divine creatures. Even her husband is often surprised by her will -- indeed, he loves her in part because she gives him "a sense of being unshackled into some limitless possibility."


A number of forces test this possibility and the couple's ambitions. One is the federal government's attempt to acquire the Pemberton's property for a national park. The Pembertons try to outwit the Secretary of the Interior and his agents, and to log as much land as possible before the government seizes it through eminent domain. Meanwhile, Serena hopes to extend the Pemberton Lumber empire into Brazil, where there are virgin forests and "no law but nature's law."


An affair from Pemberton's past also threatens the couple's fortunes. The novel opens with an unforgettable scene in which the newlywed couple is met by "a young woman pregnant with Pemberton's child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife." This woman and the child she bears -- as well as the people who care for them -- endanger Serena's sense of security, and thus become targets of her ruthlessness.


Reviewers have compared Serena to Lady Macbeth, but unlike Shakespeare's character, the woman at the center of this story is never remorseful. Her unrelenting ambition more closely recalls one of Christopher Marlowe's overreaching characters. (It is appropriate that the novel's epigraph is a line spoken by the diabolical Duke of Guise from The Massacre at Paris.) This sense of limitless possibility, which had at first attracted Pemberton, eventually frightens him. Serena sees him flinch.


One of the pleasures of this novel is that its title character is not its only fascinating personality; there are many memorable minor characters as well. The henchman who performs Serena's bidding is a terrifying villain, a methodical monster who hunts as effectively as Serena's eagle. Rash also frequently writes scenes of an eclectic cutting crew that doubles as a sort of Appalachian Greek chorus. In more comical turns, they debate biblical exegesis and the nature of electricity.


The crew also reflects on the Pembertons, both by exchanging outlandish gossip ("I heard she's just eating bloody beef for her breakfast and supper") and providing sharp insights into their machinations. Reflecting on the deadly power of Serena's eagle, one of them remarks: "I'd no more strut up and tangle with that eagle and I'd tangle with the one what can tame such a critter." (The language of Rash's characters is often poetic, from the colloquial voices of the loggers to the elevated diction of their bosses.)


The novel bleeds death. Logging accidents suddenly kill sawyers, and Nature claims victims of her own. And there are murders. This is where the novel earns its Shakespearean comparisons. Sometimes the novel shows the murders, often it only implies them, but either way they are generally stunning in their brazenness and inhumanity. Rash presents Serena's final act of malice with particular skill. (This scene recalls the final moments of Rash's short story "Speckled Trout," which won an O. Henry Prize in 2005.)

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The victims of the Pemberton's quest for lumber and money include the mountains themselves, as well as the laborers the company underpays, exploits, and endangers. Yet the Pembertons never come across as cartoonish fat-cats lighting cigars with dollar bills, and as the novel intimates the government's own questionable dealings to seize the land, it doesn't double as an environmentalist pamphlet. There are even moments when the reader may feel sympathy for the Pembertons because of their own personal tragedies. Still, the novel makes no excuses for their behavior, and Serena in particular is as evil as a character can be without being a caricature.


I began by saying that this is a novel about evil. To a lesser degree it is about justice, justice consistently frustrated and delayed. When the novel's final reckoning arrives, it delivers a fierce vengeance that is as troubling as anything that Serena executed. It is not a happy ending, but it is in keeping with the brutal beauty of this novel.


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