Review by Jamie Kornegay
Combined a pointed conflict and an exotic setting and you have the makings of great literature. South Carolina novelist and poet Ron Rash has crafted an expert combination in his new novel, ”Serena.”
In the book’s memorable opening, George Pemberton, a determined young lumber baron returning from his wedding in Boston, steps off the train in his North Carolina hometown, only to be greeted by the knife-wielding father of a young woman bearing Pemberton’s illegitimate child. Their confrontation sets the tone for the rash of violence and retribution, which will be enacted by Pemberton and his wife — the Serena of the title, who is even more courageous, conniving and resourceful than her husband — as they sheer the Carolina forests in their unbridled quest for attainment and power. Standing in their way will be government officials aiming to annex land for the national parks, squirrelly business partners, two-timing employees, righteous lawmen and anyone else fool enough to contradict their dominance.
And rest assured, the lady and her unborn child waiting at the station will play a pivotal role in the rise and fall of the Pembertons in an Appalachian tragedy that echoes Macbeth. Even the lumberjack chorus, a team of backwoods philosophers and a mad preacher, reminds one of the three witches who prophesy doom for the tragic hero.
This story of unfettered ambition is especially meaningful in light of recent Wall Street fiascoes, where corporate greed became a kind of professional virtue, and personal wealth of the few trumps the well-being of everyone else. But this is not a political book, just an impeccably crafted saga with rich characters and suspense. And kudos to Rash for the harrowing conclusion, which strikes the perfect tragic note and provides a marvelous bookend to the superb opening scene.
Jamie Kornegay is proprietor of Turnrow Book Co., an independent bookstore in Greenwood, which sells signed first editions of “Serena” among other popular titles.