four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
Ron Rash
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0
Award Year: 
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A-SerenaRon Rash—poet, novelist, and professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University—is often described as a regional writer despite having won an O. Henry Prize, among other honors and awards. However, this chilling tale, an expansion of an earlier short story in Rash’s Chemistry (2007), has received national acclaim and may bring him the wider audience he deserves.

The Story: Returning to the North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains with his new wife, Serena, in 1929, George Pemberton prepares to build a logging empire, but he is met at the train station by Rachel Harmon, a servant pregnant with his child, and her outraged, drunken father. Serena Pemberton, however, is no blushing bride. The daughter of a Colorado timber baron, she goads George into fighting, and killing, Mr. Harmon. Soon, she is personally overseeing crews of burly, bad-tempered loggers, ruthlessly determined to clear the Pembertons’ land by any means necessary before the federal government can seize it for a popular national park project. When Serena suddenly discovers that she is sterile, she turns her murderous rage on Rachel.
Ecco. 384 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 0061470856

Raleigh News & Observer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It … succeeds at being a book that rubs shoulders with the best of American literature, and yet because of its longer perspective goes them one better. … Serena is what a 21st-century novel can be: a story whose author takes full advantage of the perspective that time offers, without being intimidated by the illustrious literary ancestors time has revealed." David Frauenfelder

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite the darkness of the plot, Rash fills Serena with a deep humanity and some downright terrific writing. … His evocation of the harsh conditions, where the only way to survive was to destroy the beauty surrounding you, is powerful, and his dialogue is a delight." Yvonne Zipp

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Like early Cormac McCarthy, he creates deliciously grotesque characters. … Serena is that publishing rarity: It will please readers who cherish both plot and prose." Michael Leone

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"There are occasional moments of redemption, but Serena is so forward-thinking, devious and physically strong that the other characters can barely keep up. … This is a story that’s sprawling, engrossing and—from time to time—nightmarish." Jory John

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The only weakness may be Serena herself; as her ambitions begin to outpace her husband’s, I couldn’t help feeling that she was shrinking toward a caricature of evil. … And the final chapter is as flawless and captivating as anything I’ve read this year, a perfectly creepy shock that will leave you hearing nothing but the wind between the stumps." Ron Charles

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Serena sustains its haunting power until it goes one little step too far. When it finally lets Serena give full voice to her ambitions, they do the book an injustice. … It is a backhanded credit to the author’s portrait of Serena that no literal acts of greed and vengefulness do justice to the free-floating, otherworldly menace she has represented." Janet Maslin

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though the novel Serena is beautifully written, at times author Ron Rash’s characterization of her crosses over into caricature. He shows us repeatedly that she is absolutely devoid of compassion." Valerie Ryan

Critical Summary

In this beautifully written gothic novel, Rash paints an unforgettable portrait of a truly frightening woman, an "Ayn Rand [character] taken to sociopathic extremes" (Christian Science Monitor). Drawing comparisons to Lady Macbeth and Medea, critics were repulsed and fascinated by Serena. Though some felt that her wickedness, undiluted by the slightest pangs of compassion or empathy, crossed into the realm of caricature toward the end, they all agreed that it was impossible to put the book down. Serena is not overtly political, despite a depraved doctor named Cheney, but it does provide a stinging indictment of the devastation wrought by greed, unfettered capitalism, and the misuse of power. Readers will be haunted by this extraordinary novel long after the final page is turned.

Also by the Author

One Foot in Eden (2002): In this lyrical, moody Southern gothic novel, the mysterious disappearance of a local rabble-rouser causes problems for the sheriff and residents of a tiny Appalachian town in the 1950s.