Themes Explored: violence, betrayal, honor, loyalty, death, obsession, gender roles in society, business ethics, fatherhood, infertility, assassination, morality, survival, self-preservation, corruption, manipulation, infatuation, control, religion, motherhood, familial relations, marriage, murder, greed, fatalism
Synopsis: 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. 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. When Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. The Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: Serena is Ron Rash’s fourth novel. While a highly successful author, Rash is known on a more regional than national basis, despite an O. Henry Prize. Most of his writing focuses on the Appalachian area and culture, which is not a universally popular subject. However, Serena is the type of story that can appeal to a more diverse and national audience. Before reading Serena, I had never heard of Rash before. I thought the premise sounded interesting so decided to give the novel a chance. I ended up reading this book while vacationing in the Appalachian Mountains, so it was fun to be near the setting of the narrative. The narrative is an intriguing mix of mystery, suspense, historical fiction, and an exploration into the dehumanizing effect of absolute ruthlessness. Serena, the titular character, is a reference to Selena the Greek Goddess of the Moon. Rash chose this name because he thought it sounded erotic and mysterious. However, Serena is anything but serene and has more in common with Lady Macbeth.
Set in 1929, the novel follows the newly married George and Serena Pemberton. George travels to Boston on business and comes back to North Carolina with Serena in tow. Serena and George plan on denuding a majority of the Appalachian Mountains in order to create a logging empire and a massive fortune. However, they start logging around the time Secretary of the Interior, with the backing of John D Rockefeller, started to aggressively buy or seize property in order to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In order to make money, George needs to clear his land before the federal government forces him to sell or hand over his property. Rash includes some wonderful historical details, which adds an authentic feel to the narrative. Serena is an interesting mix of drama and parable. Rash explores the intangible qualities of life, love and courage, and the overwhelming darkness that comes when ruthlessness rules the Pembertons’ life. In this case, Serena is the darkness that completely corrupts George. She is a ruthless and power-hungry woman who is determined to show the world that she is just as capable as any man.
The newly married Serena has clear cut ambitions: log the landscape as quickly as possible, keep the land out of the hands of the federal government, and then move to Brazil to logs its mahogany forests. Serena serves as the foil to Rachel Harmon, the mother of George’s illegitimate child. Rachel strives to protect herself and her child from Serena’s murderous scheming. While Rachel values life, Serena views anyone as expendable and annoying if they cannot advance her cause. Soon, Serena shows herself to the equal of any man by overseeing logging crews, hunting rattlesnakes, and saving George when he has a mishap in the wilderness. Together, the Pembertons’ hunt down anyone who comes between them and their ambitions. Rash manages to make Serena into a thoroughly detestable human being. For most of the novel, the narrative maintains its haunting atmosphere up until the last fourth. And then the narrative goes a little too far. Rash derails the menacing aspect when he allows Serena to fully detail her ambitions. In other words, Serena gives the classic villain monologue and it is a major dissonant note in the overall narrative. There is a great twist ending and I appreciate that Rash allows justice to take its natural course.
Rash’s strongest writing comes when he focuses on describing the Appalachian Mountain landscape and the grueling conditions of the logging industry during the Great Depression. These descriptions are a welcome break from the melodramatic scenes detailing the crumbling state of the Pemberton’s marriage. Numerous men die from frostbite, rattlesnake bites, slicing via knives/axes, and other injuries that come from working with trees. Everyone is replaceable and as men die, new ones are brought in to replace them. However, the novel suffers from a lack of a relatable protagonist. At the best, George is an anti-hero and manages to somewhat redeem himself. For the most part, I found the novel an interesting read and the pacing is great. I struggled to slog through all the descriptions of the death of the laborers and Serena’s assassination attempt subplot. The novel is a great example of how to create an atmospheric and haunting feeling with words. Recently, the novel was adapted into a critically panned movie. I have not seen the movie so I cannot add my opinion on the adaptation. Overall, Serena is an interesting but depressing read.
Serena, Ecco, 2008, ISBN 9780061470851