Serena: A Novel Review

Serena: A Novel
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Serena is an expansion of a long short story by Ron Rash. Pemberton's Bride is the longest and the best of the tales in Chemistry. A second short story from that book, Speckled Trout, was expanded into the novel The World Made Straight. Not many short stories--even long short stories such as Pemberton's Bride--can be made into successful full-length novels. Too often the result has a padded feel to it, as with Edgerton's Bible Salesman, which would have worked best as a novella. But Pemberton's Bride had a power to it, and was intense, compact, dark, and strongly character-driven. There are two central figures--George Pemberton and his new wife Serena--who arrive in western North Carolina to oversee operations on Pemberton's logging operation. A few of the main parts of the plot are altered when the 46-page short story was expanded into a 370-page novel, but the novel is deeper, richer, and darker--there's never a sense of padding.
The very first paragraph of the novel (and short story) quickly set the lasting tone: in 1929 a backwoods father waits on the station platform for the arrival of the Pembertons. He is accompanied by his 16 or 17-year old daughter, pregnant by Pemberton, and carries a freshly-honed bowie knife to plunge into Pemberton's heart. After the Pembertons arrive, some words are exchanged, Harmon draws his bowie knife and approaches Pemberton. "'We're settling this now,' Harmon shouted. 'He's right,' Serena said, "Get your knife and settle it now, Pemberton.'" Which Pemberton indeed does. So you immediately see that Serena is no shrinking violet. She's tough--tougher than Pemberton--and brutal--more brutal than Pemberton. People who stand in the Pembertons' way have an unfortunate tendency to die, usually unpleasantly. Sheriff McDowell is the only one who can stand up to the Pembertons, and this is only because of toleration on the Pembertons' part. Logging during the Depression is hard and dangerous work: accidents, debilitating and fatal, are all too common, and there is always a group looking for work, for whom accidents to the logging crews mean possible job openings. There's the frightening Galloway, who does Serena's bidding and who brings death in his wake. For some authors, carefully-drawn characters are rare (usually compensated for with action). But with Rash, even unimportant people are carefully drawn. You feel as if you've come to know people well--you may not like them, but you know them.
There are two other Southern writers that this novel brings to mind. First is Cormac Mccarthy. Some of Mccarthy's works have the same lyrical dark depth that Serena has, particularly the brooding Child of God. Child of God has a wonderful phrase in it "The provinces of night" which was used as the title of a novel that the second writer used. William Gay's novels have the same dark nature that Child of God and Serena have. All three authors have a lyrical quality to their writing, an ease with words and phrases. "Southern Gothic" might describe their work. Serena is a strong work indeed, and one that you'll look forward to rereading.

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