PEN/Faulkner nominee and O. Henry Prize winner Ron Rash has produced a riveting, epic tale of greed, blood lust and revenge in Serena, his fourth novel. George Pemberton, a fledgling lumber baron in North Carolina in the late '20s, returns from a short trip to Boston with an ambitious and beautiful wife, Serena. Details of Serena's past are scarce, but the sheer force of her personality makes that seem unimportant when Rash thrusts us into the current story, which begins with a knife fight as the newlyweds arrive at the train station. The scene is startling in its swift brutality, but the reader soon comes to realize that the Pembertons do not shy away from violence. Instead, they embrace it and use it to their advantage at every turn.
When Serena—a near-mythological figure in camp due to her advanced knowledge of logging, her strict management of the workers from astride a white Arabian and her eerie control over both a rattlesnake – hunting eagle and a one – handed employee—turns her vengeful eye on Rachel, a local girl who bore George's son shortly after Serena's arrival, George begins to doubt that his love for his bride is as pure as he once believed, though it continues to burn bright and powerful until the final astonishing pages.
Rash presents the struggle between environmentalists striving to establish a national parks system through buyouts and eminent domain laws, and lumber and land barons, who often partnered to first clear the land of trees, then mine it for precious metals and gems, with crisp, acerbic dialogue and dead-on period details. The backbone of the Depression the author builds his tale on is often communicated by the impoverished, superstitious workers in the camp, who face death daily, either by the dangerous nature of the work itself, or by a desperate life on the road. It is through these characters, an Appalachian Greek chorus, that we're able to place the Pembertons' actions in context.
An impressive work, Serena has all the markings of a career-making novel, and should firmly establish poet and novelist Rash as a literary star.
Novelist Kristy Kiernan writes from southwest Florida.