Wednesday, 29 July 2009

'Serena', by Ron Rash

The book I've been struggling to put down this week is Serena, the latest novel from American poet and author Ron Rash. It's an absolute doorstopper at almost four hundred tall, tall pages, and I must admit the prospect of getting stuck in there wasn't immediately appealing. Apart from anything else, it doesn't fit in any of my bags. How could I be expected to read something that doesn't fit in any of my bags? It just didn't seem right.

Once I finally did manage to get past my sizeism, however, it took only a few minutes to realise that while the book may be long, it certainly isn't long-winded. Rash's prose is sparse without being spartan, and as tough and unyielding as the Serena of the book's title. The new bride of Pemberton, a logging tycoon based in the inhospitable mountains of North Carolina, Serena arrives in her new home and instantly takes control of not only her husband's business but of every last person she encounters. Unfortunately, her power over Pemberton has come about nine months too late, and past indiscretions haunt him in the form of his illegitimate baby son, Jacob. Serena is initially as undaunted by Jacob's existence as she is by every other obstacle she comes up against, but when a miscarriage renders her infertile, her thirst for vengence is awakened.

Rash's writing, although stripped back, is beautifully expressive, and his skill for characterisation is truly superb. Serena herself is an utter triumph of the imagination; Rash really does have the courage of his convictions, and unlike many authors he doesn't lose his bottle at the crucial moment when it comes to creating an out-and-out baddie. Marvellously self-serving and calculating, Serena is feared and admired by everyone she meets. The men at the logging company spread - and, to varying degrees, believe - rumours that she is some kind of monstrous superhuman. She trains an enormous eagle to catch snakes and rides around on a majestic white arab with the bird perched on her arm. She confronts death perhaps not joyously, but certainly indifferently, and killing things (deer, bears, people. Lots and lots of people) doesn't phase her at all. In one deliciously overwrought scene she makes love to Pemberton, who is soaked in the blood of a man he has just murdered at her behest, and allows the red to stain her own stomach. If you've been suffering from wishy-washy bad guys lately, Serena is guaranteed to cure what ails you.

If there is a flaw in this magnificent character, it is only that her wickedness is so unremittingly extreme that she does occasionally run the risk of tipping over into campy pantomime villain territory. Fortunately, Rash's ever-controlled, evenly-paced prose acts as the perfect foil to his anti-heroine; no matter what heights of diabolical excess her personality may threaten to soar to, his words never fail to contain her, even as the action gathers towards its explosive climax in the book's final chapters.

Although Serena has been out since 2008, Canongate are releasing a new edition of it which will hopefully help to garner its author the attention he most certainly deserves. You can - and should - pick it up in the UK from the 6th of August 2009.

Posted by Eilidh

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