A Moment of Jen
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Monday, March 02, 2009
posted by Jen at 3/02/2009 02:01:00 PM

Meet the book I’m loving right now: Ron Rash’s SERENA, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner prize. (The prize was ultimately won by NETHERLAND, a post-9/11 novel about a pair of expatriates, one white, one black and their quest to establish a cricket mecca in Manhattan that, in spite of all the praise, I cannot muster even a scintilla of interest in reading. I don’t know whether that’s because cricket sounds like such a yawn, or the book sounds like it’s got a magical negro problem).

But! Serena! She is Lady Macbeth in Appalachia! She’s an Ayn Rand heroine astride a white Arabian horse, with an eagle tethered to her arm. She is unadulterated will, unalloyed ambition. She’s also pure evil, but who’s complaining, as she smites her enemies, defenestrates the forest, emasculates her husband, and mows down anyone and everything who stands in her way?

Here’s how Rash gets the party started:

"When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father's estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton's child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton's heart."

How can you not keep reading after that?

I actually did have two smallish complaints about the book. One is that, like Shakespeare, Rash never really gives his lady an origin story. There’s a few references to her family, all dead, back in Colorado, her time at Miss Porter’s (so maybe her snooty boarding school’s to blame?) and her days in Boston, but none of it adds up to a convincing explanation for what fire forged this woman.

The point seems to be that, like the land she’s defoliating, Serena just is; no explanation possible…but it’s interesting to think about a book that would try to explain a woman like that.

The other problem: it’s clear that nobody who’s been anywhere near a fifteen-month-old had a hand in writing or editing this book.

The pregnant girl at the train station survives her encounter with Serena and gives birth to a boy named Jacob. And Jacob is always asleep.

He’s dozing when Mom climbs up on the roof to patch the holes. He’s snoozing, or sitting politely on her lap, and while he’s being photographed, and during sermons at church. He’s drowsing when his mother hides in a boxcar and brains Serena’s evil one-armed henchmen (for real – this book has evil one-armed henchmen!) with a sock full of marbles.

I understand that some of the time the baby’s sleeping because the plot requires him to be asleep, even if that’s not even remotely how a real-life toddler would behave. But in a few of those instances, it would have added much more drama to an already dramatic plot to have the baby wake up, to have poor, overburdened, heroic Rachel fighting for her while trying to keep her son quiet.

But, like I said, minor quibbles. If you like your beautiful sentences wrapped around a brisk, bracing plot with an unforgettable antihero, get some Serena.
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