Tom's Reviews > Serena
by Ron Rash
by Ron Rash
Rash can create a tone of menace with the best of them. The last 100 pgs are as gripping as anything I've read in a long time. And Rash describes the lush natural beauty of western Carolina on a level that rivals Charles Frazier in "Cold Mountain." I found his portayal of logging life in the Depression quite moving, more poignant than the main plot line of the Pemberton's rapacious ambitions, and therein lies the main drawback of this otherwise riveting novel. Though vividly drawn, Serena, and to a lesser degree her husband, is more a personification of evil than a three-dimensional character; more akin to Cathy Ames in "East of Eden" than to Euripides's Medea. Rash's sympathies are all too obvious, as he sets up Serena and Pemberton as strawman villains, outsider capitalists who care only about power (a Marxist would have a field day with this book). At least Pemberton experiences some disturing awareness, though later suppressed, of what a monster he's married, but no such complexity, however fleeting, in Serena emerges. Rash is much more nuanced in portraying the locals, especially Rachel, a vulnerable but gritty heroine who captures your admiration and sympathy without a splinter of sentimentality. Presenting a logging team, however, as a kind of Greek chorus, was stilted, and their predictable commentary became annoying. The problem is that Rash introduces them as realistic charaters, each with a unique personality, before gradually lumping them together as a uniform conscience of the community. The traditional chorus in Greek tragedy often serves to reveal conflicting values and desires within the community, "Antigone" being a good example. No such depth in this group. McDowell proves a far more dramatic and convincing condemnation of the Pembertons. But this is a minor quibble. I was prepared to give this book 4 stars until I read the Coda chapter, which I found hokey and inconsistent with the characters. The kind of thing you'd expect in a pulp crime novel than in a work with such literary ambitions and achievements. It seemed as if after crafting such a rich conflict over the preservation and exploitation of nature, Rash gave in to the temptations of indulging the thriller elements of the book and ending on a crowd-pleasing note. For me, it cost the book a 1/2 star. I'd give it 3 1/2 stars. Overall though, I'm much impressed with Rash's talents. I've read and admired several short stories in his latest collection, "Burning Bright," and look forward to reading more of his work.
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