Monday, April 25, 2011

Week 16: Serena: A Novel, by Ron Rash

I was prompted to read this book when a Facebook friend of mine posted a news article stating that Darren Aronofsky was in talks with Angelina Jolie to create a film adaptation of Serena with Jolie as the title character. Being an avid fan of both Aronofsky and Jolie, this piqued my interest and I added Serena to my “to-read” list. (Of course, because of this article, it was impossible for me to not visualize Jolie as Serena after starting the book.) The book’s tense, compelling tone is set immediately in its first few pages. It opens with the dramatic encounter between George Pemberton, timber tycoon, and the father of the girl carrying his illegitimate child. Pemberton arrives at a train station in North Carolina in 1929 after spending three months away in Boston. He is joined by his new wife, Serena. The mother of his child, Rachel Harmon, is merely 16 years old and watches haplessly as her father challenges Pemberton to a knife fight to defend his daughter’s honor. What ensues is the first of many bloody, merciless scenes that will take place in this story. Pemberton and his wife, in their quest to acquire as much timber as possible to expand their empire, exemplify a greed and disregard for nature that typifies big business even today. The newlyweds settle into the logging camp, where the reader learns more about the dangerous, and often deadly, conditions that befall the workers. Pemberton and Serena attempt to purchase more land and fend off conservationists attempting to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Simultaneously, Serena is revealing herself as a force to be reckoned with. She quickly earns the respect of the workers by winning a wager based on eyeballing the amount of timber in a particular tree. Her business acumen is equal to, if not surpassing, her husband’s. She is cold and calculating, physically strong and intimidating. She verbally destroys anyone who dares to contradict her; she tames and trains an eagle; she saves her husband by shooting down a bear that has attacked him. She transcends gender and cuts down anyone who does not recognize this. However, Serena begins to unravel when she is faced with the reality that she is unable to bear children. This misfortune is exacerbated by Pemberton’s lingering interest in his young son with Rachel. Serena’s burgeoning ambition becomes uncontrollable – she has already begun to dispose of anyone in her way, and she begins to focus her attention on Rachel (in many ways, Serena’s polar opposite) and the baby. Comparisons have been made between Serena’s character and Lady Macbeth, and one reviewer even asserts that Serena speaks in a loose iambic pentameter. She’s rather frightening, and the sense of dread she creates builds throughout the novel. Rash portrays both Serena and the less-educated timber workers with elegance, and the reader comes to appreciate all of the characters in this dark tale. I really enjoyed this novel, which I classify as a “stay up late reading” type of book, because I didn’t want to put it down. Epic in scope, it’s brutal, but also subtly beautiful in its examination of good and evil.


  1. That's awesome that you read this. It's been on my to-read pile since it came out, because I'm a big fan of his short stories. Thanks, Nicole.

  2. Oh, it's definitely worth reading. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it! Thank you, Jonathan - thank YOU.