Serena by Ron Rash

Passionless…

😦 😦

When George Pemberton arrives home from Boston with his new wife, Serena, there waiting for him at the railway station are Rachel Harmon, pregnant with Pemberton’s child, and Rachel’s father, determined to have retribution for his daughter. But Pemberton has no sense of guilt or responsibility towards Rachel, and Serena makes it crystal clear that she’s even colder and crueller than her husband. As Pemberton and Serena ruthlessly continue to build up the fortune they are making out of the deforestation of North Carolina, Rachel must struggle to survive on next to nothing, and bring up her new son, Jacob, without a father. But that’s the least of her problems – things are going to get worse…

Having previously enjoyed Rash’s The Cove, I was really looking forward to this, and was delighted when several fellow bloggers and commenters decided to read it along with me. That makes me feel even worse about the fact that I thought it was pretty poor – no, let’s be brutally honest, I thought it was downright silly and rather tedious into the bargain. Pemberton and Serena are ridiculous characters, cold, cruel psychopaths who get away with murder again and again, despite the fact that everyone knows they’re doing it. We are expected to believe that nearly all law officers and authorities are corrupt and can be bought for a few hundred dollars – well, maybe. But apparently all businessmen and their wives are also willing to turn a blind eye to murder so long as there’s a profit in it. Yes, I hear you saying, that’s possible too. But, I reply, even when they know that the Pembertons repeatedly bump off their business partners? I know evil capitalists do anything for money, but go into partnership with people who have just murdered their last partners? I have my doubts…

The background plot is more interesting, showing the rapacious destruction of the natural resources of a still young America during the years of the Depression, contrasted against the attempts of some rich philanthropists to protect the land through the creation of National Parks. While those who want to protect the land get the most sympathy, Rash also shows how these philanthropists drove people off their holdings, depriving them of their sole means of scraping a living, in order to build wilderness playgrounds. Since these competing pressures are still very much part of today’s ethical and economic debate, I wished Rash would have concentrated his plot more on that aspect – it felt as if he set the table but didn’t get around to serving the meal.

The workers had plenty of potential to be interesting too, showing the hardships of life in the Depression even for those lucky enough to be in employment. With no legal rights and hordes of unemployed men willing to take their place, we see them unable to take any kind of stand against unscrupulously exploitative employers who show no concern for workers’ safety (although again, even in the Depression I don’t think I’d have stuck in a job under people who murdered their employees rather than simply sacking them like normal evil capitalists). Unfortunately I felt that Rash treated his lower class characters a bit like the rustics in Midsummer’s Night Dream – caricatured figures of fun, eliciting some sympathy from the reader, but mostly there to be laughed at. It took me well over half the book to be able to distinguish one from another because they were so underdeveloped, a problem I had, in fact, with the various businessmen the Pembertons moved amongst too.

Rachel’s story is the one bit that I felt really works. Her hard life and her love for her son and for this land she calls home ring true and provide the only real emotion in the book, and some of the best writing. I’d have liked to have spent more time with her, but the chapters about her are few and far between.

After Widow Jenkins left, Rachel lingered a few more moments on the porch. The sun had fallen behind the mountains now, and the cove seemed to settle deeper into the earth, the way an animal might burrow into leaves to make a nest before it slept. All the while, the thickening shadows made the mountains appear to fold inward. Rachel tried to imagine what living here had been like for her mother, but it was impossible, because what had felt like being shut in to her mother felt like a sheltering to Rachel, as if the mountains were huge hands, hard but gentle hands that cupped around you, protecting and comforting, the way she imagined God’s hands would be. She supposed Widow Jenkins was right, that you had to be born here.

As far as the awful Pembertons go, I suspect Rash was attempting to ‘do’ noir – quite early on I found myself comparing them to the equally psychopathic couple in The Postman Always Rings Twice. This comparison did Rash no favours, however, since it highlighted what I came to think is the real failure of the book, and the reason that it simply doesn’t work. Noir depends on simmering sexuality, hence the femme fatale, but there is no feeling of passion between Pemberton and Serena and she is colder than ice. While I’m not one for excessive sex scenes in books, this book was crying out for a few. Why did these two love each other? It wasn’t shared intellectual pursuits, for sure, and ambition for and love of money isn’t enough, especially since neither character seemed to care about the luxury that wealth can bring, or even its power. So it must have been physical passion and yet Rash was so coy about showing us that it didn’t seem a strong enough motivation. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, the protagonists are overwhelmed by lust, frequently indulging in rough sex, full of mashed lips, bruises and bloody biting – it might be disgusting, but it’s passionate! Here Pemberton and Serena take off their clothes and fold them away neatly in the chifforobe before getting cosily into bed together – not quite the same somehow. Freezing cold where there should have been scorching heat…

Without getting into spoilers, I will simply say that the only thing sillier than the book’s climax was the coda which followed. I laughed, and I’m quite certain that wasn’t the reaction I was supposed to have. A major disappointment – I can only hope anyone else who’s been reading along enjoyed it considerably more than I.

A link to Kelly’s review is below and I’ll add any others as I see them:

Kelly’s review

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link