Serena By Ron Rash

By: Anne Louise Taylor
Posted: 22 October 2012
Category: Reviews Comments View Comments


Serena, a highly disturbing story filled with tension and suspense, is a well-written tragedy about a passionate marriage that deteriorates at an alarming rate until all that is left is revenge and violence.

Serena By Ron RashI admit that I like reading traditional romance but Serena Pemberton, the main female character in Serena, written by Ron Rash, is a tough, hard-hearted and ruthless woman - far removed from the stereotypical gender roles set aside for women. After reading the first few paragraphs I decided this was not my kind of novel but something kept me turning the pages. By the end of the first chapter, I was hooked.

You would be mistaken if you assume Serena is a romance novel. Although there are a few sexy scenes thrown in the mix, the novel is really all about greed, ambition, deception, and retribution and could easily be read as a contemporary version of the Shakespearean play Macbeth.

The novel opens in 1929 with George Pemberton returning to the North Carolina mountains to take care of a growing timber empire. He is accompanied by his new bride from the city, Serena, who is described as "an unexpected bonus from his time in Boston". On their arrival they find a drunk Abe Harmon and his pregnant teenage daughter Rachel, a local servant girl, waiting for them at Waynesville train station. Pemberton has only learnt the night before that this "local servant girl", whose name he cannot remember, is carrying his child. He has also been warned that her father had been threatening to settle some business with him.

In their standoff Serena informs Abe that he is a lucky man that his daughter is carrying her husband's child. "You'll not find a better sire to breed her with," she claims. She then turns to Rachel and tells her that this is the only child of his she will ever have. She makes her claim on her husband, telling Rachel, "I'm here now. Any other children he has will be with me."

Readers who still feel sorry for the city bride who appears to be at risk of losing her new husband to a drunken man armed with a Bowie knife will quickly change their minds. Serena is not the type of woman who would let this happen. It is at Serena's encouragement to settle the matter that George guts and kills Abe with a hunting knife given to him by her as a wedding present. Serena shows her true nature when she then picks up Abe's Bowie knife and gives it to Rachel, telling her that by all rights it belongs to her husband but that Rachel could sell it to support her child when it's born. "It's all you'll ever get from my husband and me," she snarls at Rachel, who has now been left to fend for herself.

Serena By Ron RashThe novel's tone is set right from the start and moves at an unusually and exciting fast pace for a first chapter. In one sweep, the novel's dramatic opening has revealed the couple's inclination towards downright cruelty. George claims self-defense and the Pembertons show absolutely no remorse for their actions. In fact, George is rather pleased that the fight was witnessed by some local workmen because he thinks they'll respect him and his new wife more for being able to kill a man.

George's henchmen are taken aback by Serena's short blonde hair and her five-foot-nine stature. Their obvious surprise stems from her wearing breeches and boots instead of a dress and cloche hat. Her sun-bronzed skin and lack of makeup belies her true social class; her proper diction and posture give away the fact that she had attended finishing school in New England. A wealthy orphan from Colorado, she is described as "a child of a timber man who'd taught his daughter to shake hands firmly and look men in the eye as well as ride and shoot". She is also a woman who has frightened off every other bachelor except George.

George had recognised Serena as being incapable of coyness ever since they had first met and becomes entirely seduced by her. With her, he feels "a sense of being unshackled into some limitless possibility, limitless though at the same time somehow constrained within the two of them". Right from the start, she holds the power within their relationship and wields tremendous influence over her husband. George feels lucky to have found Serena but she simply tells him it was not good fortune but inevitable that they should meet.

Serena does not act like a typical woman from her era. Even though George demands that the loggers treat her as the equal of any man, she commands respect among them immediately - mostly by putting the fear of God into them. She proves herself capable of surviving in the wild by hunting rattlesnakes and even saving her husband from a bear. Highly ambitious, she readily accepts challenges - which she always wins.

The Pembertons, particularly the tough Serena, have a goal: to expand their timber empire at any cost. They even oversee the dangerous work of the camp's one hundred workmen who cut and haul timber under such dangerous conditions that accidents resulting in severed limbs and death are commonplace. This serves as no obstacle for the Pembertons - it's the Great Depression and labour is not only cheap but easily replaceable, so much so that the workmen's indifferent doctor questions whether it is financially viable to bother saving each injured workman. The workers appear to keep themselves operating purely on coffee, cigarettes, and cocaine and Serena is pleased that the only electricity they are supplied with is in the main dining hall, believing that they will work harder if they live a spartan life.

The Pembertons have a bigger problem to deal with. The government plans to create a national park (what was eventually to become known as Great Smoky Mountains National Park), using land that the Pembertons have earmarked for themselves. The couple plans to extract every penny from the land by stripping it bare for timber. The conservation theme is evidently explored in the novel when one of the workmen observes the devastation they have left behind and quietly says, "I think this is what the end of the word will look like."

Serena, a ruthless businesswoman and even more ambitious than her husband, wants to use the profits made in the North Carolina mountains to start a new logging empire in the forests of Brazil where the plentiful mahogany trees will make them richer than ever before. The Pembertons mercilessly attempt to thwart the government's plans to create a national park at every turn. They fiercely guard the tracts of land they desire for themselves from "government land grabs". Those that stand in the way of the Pemberton's ambitions begin to die in strange accidents or mysteriously disappear as the couple is willing to do anything it takes to obtain ownership of the land. Serena, of course, is the deadly driving force behind all the mayhem.

Serena By Ron RashGeorge's wedding present to Serena is a white Arabian stallion, which costs more than what one logger earns in a year. Serena also patiently trains a golden eagle from Mongolia to catch rattlesnakes that cause the deaths of their workmen. Of course, she does not do this for the wellbeing of the crewmen but to keep them fit to work, and thus drive their profits. Just like a mythical creature, she rides her white horse with the eagle perched on her arm. The author, drawing on the techniques of Elizabethan drama, uses the local workmen to provide background comment on the main protagonists and their conversation is richly littered with superstitious notions. For example, the local priest McIntyre believes that Serena herself is an omen. "It's in the Revelations," he claims, "says the whore of Babylon will come forth in the last days wearing pants." When Serena's pet eagle drops a rattlesnake right in front of him he is immediately taken to a "nervous hospital" where he receives shock treatment.

Eventually Serena falls pregnant but a fall from the horse causes her to lose her baby. When Serena learns that she cannot have another child she becomes insanely jealous of Rachel and her illegitimate child, who are now living with an older woman. Serena plunges into a murderous rage and sets out to kill her husband's only son. Rachel and her son are forced to begin the struggle for their lives. Rachel has already managed to save her son from dying from a severe illness they had both contracted. In a fever, Rachel manages to walk across harsh terrain to the doctor so that he can attend to her son and save him. The doctor tells her that she should love the child as dear as life to which she replies, "I tried not to. I just couldn't find a way to stop myself." The love that Rachel has for her son appears to be enough reason for Serena to strike out at them. The two are protected by the local town sheriff while they are on the run from Serena and her henchman, Galloway, who does her every bidding. Galloway has lost his left hand in an accident with an axe but he is still feared by everyone who knows him. To ratchet up the suspense Galloway's blind mother is able to predict the future and reveal the exact location of the characters trying to escape their fate.

When Serena suspects her husband of protecting Rachel and his son, their marriage begins to disintegrate. The final chapter is a real page turner and entirely captivating. The themes of love and passion and revenge become intertwined as this intriguing novel moves towards its shocking finale.

In the end, the Pembertons are wiling to destroy human lives as much as they destroy the beauty of the landscape that surrounds them. However, the violence of the novel is carefully balanced with beautiful descriptions of the landscape, even though the terrain often brings hardship to many of the characters. Chapters about Rachel and the baby provide a softening relief from the escalating violence in other chapters involving Serena.

My only criticism of the novel is that Serena appears to become a caricature of evil. Serena could be compared to Lady Macbeth who also dispenses with those who inconvenience her, although Serena never shows any remorse or guilt for what she has done. Her motivations for her actions are difficult for the reader to understand as she progressively moves towards pure evilness. However, one feels as if one has been sucked into the story and is living among the characters in the same historical era. Serena is Rash's fourth novel and I think he is well on his way to becoming a highly acclaimed author. The novel has been named a notable book of the year by The New York Times and has won numerous awards from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and, among others. It was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction in 2009.

Tags: #books

Key Facts (Review Copy)
Rating: 7/10

Key Facts (Review Copy)
Title: Serena
Author: Ron Rash
ISBN/EAN: 9781847674876
Publisher: Canongate Publishers (first published by HarperCollins Publishers in 2008)
Edition: First (this edition)
Year: 2009, first published 2008
Format: Paperback
Pages: 367
Dimensions: 155x233x280mm (WxHxD)
Genre/Keywords: drama, greed, ambition, deception, revenge, USA

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