Author: Ron Rash
Publication Date: 10/7/08
Publisher: Ecco Press
Blurb(GR): The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains--but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.
Rash's masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.
I promised a review of this book this week and it looks like I just made it! Phew. Sunday totally counts, right? I finished this book quite a while ago but as always, life intervened and there was much internet-free gallivanting and acres of sand between my toes and billions of hours of driving last week, all of which conspired to prevent me from writing this review. Here’s a picture of where I was:
Alright, well all excuses aside I really loved this book. This was one of Karen’s picks for me a few weeks ago on She Made Me Do It and I’m so glad she put it in front of my eyes because I might never have found it otherwise. My favorite part of this book, without a doubt, is its titular character Serena.
Some people, after suffering years of adversity, will become twisted and damaged and unable to function. Maybe even most people. And then there are people like Serena – who go up against adversity and seem to become honed by it. They walk through tragedy and all of their softer layers seem to get sloughed off, leaving them hardened and sharp. Serena is a girl who survived a deadly flu epidemic, burned her childhood home to the ground, braved the wildernesses of Colorado, found herself a suitably powerful lumber baron to marry, and set her sights on expansion. Any challenge that nature lays before her feet, she seems ready to take on - whether it be a deadly virus, the rattlesnake population, or the acres of virginal Brazilian rainforest she longs to mow down. And it isn’t as if she triumphs over nature; she’s far too much a part of it herself to be set apart in that way. Rather, she is the smartest, deadliest predator in the natural world she inhabits. In this wild place where several men die each week in the pursuit of lumber, Serena – a young, petite woman – seems the most fit to survive. She is willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure her place, including murder anyone who gets in her way, or anyone who may or may not get in her way at some unspecified future date. With her deadly pet eagle on one arm and her dedicated assassin on the other, Serena blazes off the page.
Which is interesting, because the narration never hovers over her thoughts. Instead, it moves between Pemberton, Serena’s formidable husband, and Rachel, Pemberton’s teenage plaything from his life before Serena – neither of whom are even a tiny bit as interesting as Serena herself. Rachel’s story really leads the narrative, and she’s no doubt a very sympathetic character, but every time the narration switched over to her I felt a bit bored. Rachel struggles to survive on her own with an unwanted pregnancy and almost no support from anyone in the town. She scrimps and works her fingers to the bone and gets by on very little and raises her son well. It’s all very inspiring…but honestly, I just wanted to get back to Serena murdering people. That was much more interesting to me.
However, as Serena’s sights turn to Rachel, the mother of what it turns out will be Pemberton's only child, Rachel is forced to become craftier, harder, and more violent…and then I started to like her a great deal more. I also just love that, by tormenting Rachel, Serena essentially becomes the instrument that hones her into a worthy adversary. That’s just good old fashioned poetic justice right there.
This book is like a brutal fairy tale set in the 1920's wilderness of America and starring the wicked witch. I really enjoyed every sinister minute. And I will never doubt Karen's taste. It is impeccable!