Sarah Ryburn's Reviews > Serena

Serena by Ron Rash
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's review
Jul 07, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: historical-fiction, southern-lit, all-time-best
Read in October, 2009

** spoiler alert ** (so now i'm almost 200 pages in, and the main characters- pemberton and serena- are starting to remind me of macbeth and lady macbeth. not just murder... think lady macbeth's tongue-lashing of her guilt-stricken husband when macbeth begins to waver in their plans. as i recall, she boasts that she would rather dash the brains of her own child against the ground than show the remorse that troubles macbeth after duncan's murder. she calls him a coward. hmm... lady serena?) interesting to reread what i wrote at what is approximately the novel's midpoint. i've since seen a short review of ron rash's book that calls it "an appalachian retelling of macbeth." appropriate.

rash is a great storyteller and offers such beautiful prose. it doesn't even bother me when he writes in fragments. that's high praise. he writes fiction with a poetic quality, probably because he is also a published poet. this novel is superb. it's strange to me to think that serena and one foot in eden come from the same author of saints at the river– the former two so far outstrip the latter. what i love most about rash's story is the ending. literally, i loved the final two pages. pemberton's death scene is stunningly beautiful and worth the entire novel to read. i realized long before rash's hero what was coming, but the ending loses nothing for this foreknowledge. it's really not that hard to figure out, and that's the brilliance of it. rash writes his characters so well that pemberton's blindness to the inevitable seems not only plausible but necessary. the cry he hears just at the end, like an infant's cry, is gorgeous imagery. the hand opening, his certainty that serena has come for him, it's all so masterfully wrought. it's the culmination of 370+ pages. rash accomplishes all that a good story should accomplish and with the flair of, dare i say it, shakespeare.

like the bard, the point isn't to stun the reader (or audience, as the case may be) with a surprise ending but to interweave character and plot so tightly that the ending procedes organically and ineluctably from the beginning. both stories (serena and macbeth) remind me of the old anglo-saxon notion of wyrd– each of us is ultimately caught in the web of our own character and choices. we are prisoners of ourselves, of the character traits and flaws that influence our choices and that ultimately make and break us. pemberton, like macbeth, is a classic tragic hero who orchestrates, however blindly, his own destruction and whose fall is all the more tragic because his story begins with the promise of such greatness. serena reminds me both of lady macbeth and the witches– she seems at times more gruesome spectre than human being, yet there is that final scene with pemberton and the photograph... perhaps she is so gruesome because she remains so essentially human.

altogether, stunning. ron rash is absolutely one of my favorite authors. (i almost wish to be a teacher again so that i could plan a comparative literature curriculum around serena and macbeth.) in addition to his characters, the author again paints a rich and living portrait of his beloved appalachia. as in one foot in eden the setting is character, too, and gives to the novel both rooting in time and place and somehow an other-worldly atmosphere, haunting and mythical.
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Quotes Sarah Ryburn Liked

Ron Rash
“What made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting small things first... it's amazing how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. After more time passed you could let yourself remember, even want to remember. But even then what you felt those first days could return and remind you the grief was still there, like old barbed wire embedded in a tree's heartwood.”
Ron Rash, Serena

Reading Progress

10/09/2009 page 21
5.66% "one chapter in, and i'm hooked. reads, so far, much more like one foot in eden than his others. yippee!"

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