Author and Western Carolina University professor Ron Rash rarely strays far from the mountains where he grew up and now teaches. His fourth novel, the Southern gothic tale Serena, opens in Depression-era Appalachia with a fatal power struggle.
North Carolina timber magnate George Pemberton returns from Boston with his bride, Serena, to find Rachel Harmon, the 16-year-old he had a brief tryst with before leaving, pregnant and waiting with an angry father. In an effort to defend his daughter's honor, Rachel's father challenges Pemberton to a duel. The old man barely has time to spit out his tobaccy before Pemberton, at Serena's command, lunges forward like an expert fencer and spills his opponent's guts.
Serena, while physically striking, maintains a cold practicality reminiscent of Lady MacBeth. She has big plans for the Pemberton timber empire that include felling any tree, person or government that stand between her and total domination. Under her spell, Pemberton becomes a husband/hit man, committing murders with the same laissez-faire attitude other men have about taking out the trash. Serena also enlists a snake-hunting eagle and the Gollum-like henchman Galloway to carry out her will.
Unlike Lady MacBeth, Serena doesn't suffer from any guilt or regret and plugs onward, building an empire out of ruins. She exists as more of an archetype than an actual human, her intimidating yet seductive physique looming throughout the story like an emotionless force of nature.
While Rash's story isn't short on big moments, the dialogue often lacks the urgency necessary to build momentum. It's not until the last 100 pages or so that Serena's tale of blood and lust finds the rapid pacing of the title character's white Arabian. Like Serena, though, Rash's savage end ultimately justifies his means.
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