Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Review: "Serena" by Ron Rash

Ron Rash's acclaimed novel Serena (2008) was a unique reading experience. I've been thinking about how to write this book review for a while now because of how mixed my feelings are about the whole of the novel. I liked it, however, there was a tension thrumming beneath the story the entire time that I felt was never fully realized. The amount of tension achieved with the use of symbolism, fatalism, mounting greed and obsession was all brought to a climax that didn't measure up to the painstakingly deliberate rising action. This is my opinion of course, and I'm sure there are many people who would disagree.

Serena takes place just after the stock market crash as the country dives deep into the Great Depression. The story is set in the mountains of Western North Carolina where Mr. Pemberton has just arrived with his new bride, Serena. The power couple intend to strip the mountains of its lumber and exploit the cheap labor of the locals and travelers who arrive in boxcars every day.

The story is told in alternating limited third person perspective, but none of those perspectives are those of the title character. Rash's decision to eliminate Serena's voice elevates her to more of a force that preys on and plagues the lives of the characters we do get to know. It's a bold choice. Is it entirely successful? I think that depends on the reader.

Serena is cold, ruthless, and greedy. She is, in many ways, a microcosm of the big business that thrives while standing on the backs of the less fortunate. She is a destructive force with an alluring quality that holds her husband in awe, and occasionally in horror. The sparse details of her past are meticulously chosen by Rash. Serena hails from Colorado where her family ran a lumber business and then later died during the Influenza epidemic. Serena survived the disease and burned down her family's home before heading East to aggressively pursue her education. This detail highlights a dangerous quality about Serena - her capacity for destruction and emotional non-attachment.

Serena and Pemberton have a passionate and obsessive relationship. The couple are motivated by profits and power, and they will do anything to get what they want. Serena becomes a major player in Pemberton's lumber business; making callous moves to gain more power from their partners. She also involves herself in the day-to-day aspects of logging. She climbs atop her white Arabian horse and gives orders to the men, challenging them and earning their fearful respect. When snakes prove to be a hindrance to logging progress, striking down workers on a regular basis, Serena tames an eagle and sets out everyday with her deadly bird that calls to mind a prehistoric predator with its deadly talons. Nobody but the locals even consider the impact the eagle will have on the ecosystem; how the elimination of snakes means an influx of rodents. Balance has been disturbed in multiple ways, but the repercussions seem limited to the poor working class.

Rash creates quite an image of this tall blonde woman, her hair lit up like a halo as she rides her white horse with a black hooded eagle perched on her arm. It's descriptions and images like this that make Serena more of a symbol than a fully realized character. In observing Serena, one of the locals remarks, "I'd no more strut up and tangle with that eagle than I'd tangle with the one what can tame such a critter."

The story also ventures into the realm of politics and environmental conservation, but Pemberton and Serena are more lawless in their methods of negotiation. In the mountains of North Carolina they bring a quality of the wild west, where bureaucracy was bypassed by violent intent.

Initially, I was a bit thrown by Rash's decision to tell the story from the perspectives of Pemberton, the young girl who births his illegitimate child, Rachel Harmon, and Snipes, a crew foreman. However, as the story progressed I understood the author's intention in eliminating Serena as a view point character. It's important to never know what she's thinking, because it makes her unpredictable. Pemberton is so wrapped up in their warped and fatalistic love that he chooses to ignore Serena's descent into a kind of malicious madness. Rachel Harmon was my favorite character, and really the only character that is genuinely likable. Her struggle to survive and protect her child, Pemberton's only child as Serena is rendered barren, shows that she is just as strong as Serena, but in a different way. Snipes is an educated mountain crew man who disperses laconic wisdom and observations that make him more like a sage, or the Greek Chorus of this tragedy, filling in narrative gaps with relevant information.

Rash is an excellent writer. His knowledge of Appalachian language, culture, and scenery enriches the work. His restraint as a writer is evident in the details he chooses to highlight in his prose. His prose remains consistently pared down and deliberate, which creates a kind of coldness in the narrative that is true to the tone of story. The only thing that I didn't like about the story was Serena's character arc. She becomes a kind of caricature of evil and her motive at the climax of the story didn't ring true for me. When Serena reveals her full ambition and says, "The world is ripe, and we'll pluck it like an apple from a tree," she becomes too exaggerated. Her ambitions surpass Pemberton's and all of the rising action of the story comes to a climax that just didn't feel authentic when reflecting on the couple's relationship. However, we never know Serena's true thoughts, only Pemperton's assumptions about her feelings, so in the end...I suppose anything was possible.

Overall, it was a tense read that I was inexplicably drawn to despite the fact that there was only one character I cared about. I couldn't pull myself away from the story. The writing was beautifully laconic and able to establish a tone that remains consistent throughout the story and changing character perspectives. The movie adaptation of Serena starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper is due out in theaters soon, but has received a lot of criticism due to the general un-likability of the main characters. Not every story has a hero or shining protagonist, and this is definitely one of those stories. I'm interested to see what they change about the story for the film adaptation and whether they succeed in making Serena a believable villain.

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