21 June 2013

Ron Rash: Serena (2008)

Ron Rash's Serena comes with many snippets from reviews, the Guardian's mentioning the author in the same breath as Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier, and I think Frazier is particularly significant as he is writing about the same geographical area. This powerful book certainly has an atmosphere of myth, or possibly, as one reviewer pointed out, of Shakespearian tragedy. Except that Serena is not a tragic figure – she's a psychopath.

And by proxy, she's a violent serial killer too, and the book begins where it ends: with an act of revenge, only the revenge at the beginning is turned against its unfortunate would-be perpetrator. To clarify: this is in the late 1920s in the North Carolina mountains, and Pemberton the logging company owner (whose forename is virtually never spoken, even by his wife) returns from a journey to Boston with his new wife Serena, who automatically expects her trophy husband to despatch the knife-toting, vengeful father Harmon, whose (as yet unnamed) daughter is visibly pregnant – by Pemberton, as everyone knows. So Harmon cuts Pemberton's arm a little and Pemberton slits Harmon's belly deeply and his intestines fall out: job done, time to show the wife her spartan new home.

Serena and Pemberton are a match made in hell, and the logging company proceeds to ride roughshod over anyone who stands in their way, cares nothing for its workers (well, this is the Depression and labor is cheap), and their only interest is in money and power, along with frequent 'coupling' with each other, as the narrator insists on calling it. If the merciless nature of the environment won't kill the men then (if they don't worship at the altar of Serena) then Serena knows a man who will kill them, and when she can't with impunity get Pemberton to kill for her, she'll get her henchman Galloway to do the job instead.

One of the minor characters in the book is a representation of Horace Kephart, who was the prime mover in the establishing of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and although he's the 'natural' enemy of the mass tree-felling Serena and husband, the novel of course doesn't  distort history and have him killed off by Galloway.

A strong symbol of Serena's power is the eagle she trains to kill rattle snakes, and even a dragon: the violent language is firmly rooted in the real, and this helps the reader to maintain that suspension of disbelief. And it's the eagle that hovers over the narrative drive, creating a fear in the reader that the bird will somehow destroy two of the few sympathetic characters in the novel: Rachel Harmon and her young child. This fear grows as Serena learns that she can't have a child and she seeks to have Rachel and the child killed.

Rash does suspense well, and as Pemberton reveals his tragic 'flaw' – his humanity, because he sees to it that Rachel gets enough money to escape to Seattle with their child, who conveniently looks like his double – Serena finds out and (via Galloway, of course) packs Pemberton off on an everlasting day trip with rat poison sandwiches; his death is made even more painful by a chance encounter with a deadly poisonous snake.

The story has another sting in its tail: forty-five years later (in a coincidence the reader just has to put up with in his or her honorable lust for revenge) Rachel happens to read about the timber baroness Serena, the 75-year-old Amazon who has been making financial killings in the Amazon for decades. This of course is the cue for Rachel's son to hop on a train to Sao Paulo (which, it perhaps goes without saying, mirrors Pemberton's train ride from Boston at the beginning), where he descends and swiftly slits Serena's bodyguard's throat and drives into her belly the knife that killed his grandfather. In a final poignant touch, Ron Rash leaves us with the image of the knife fast inside the still-standing Serena. Only she's now dead.

The movie adaptation, with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as the Pembertons and directed by Susanne Bier, is due for release at the end of September 2013.

My post on Horace Kephart and his grave:

Horace Kephart and Bryson City, North Carolina

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