So even after my mom raved about Ron Rash’s Serena, I’ve finally just now gotten around to reading it. Some of you who have been with me for a while may remember when she submitted a guest review on this one, and because her review is excellent, I’m reposting it here.
I don’t habitually read beyond midnight, but I could not put down Ron Rash’s Serena once the last chase began. The impact of his villainess left me reeling.
One reviewer wrote that Serena “is certainly not serene in any sense of the word.” The energetic drive of her ambition to finish raping the forests of Appalachian North Carolina and to move on to Brazil’s mahogany woods gives rise to such a statement. But I read Serena’s blood-chilling indifference to any life that hinders her plans as another definition of serene. She is compared to Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth was not serene; Duncan’s blood drove her to insanity. Serena, on the other hand, could walk through the blood of her latest innocent victim with unflinching calm. She issued evil with perfect serenity just as she watched accidental death and maiming in the lumber camps with icy calm. On the surface there is irony in the name; a closer study denotes complete appropriateness.
The parallels in Rash’s Serena to Elizabethan and Greek drama are noteworthy. The denizens of the lumber camp comprise a chorus: reporting and commenting on “off-stage” action, adding insight into character, and providing comic relief. Galloway’s blind prophetess-mother conjures up both Tieresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, and the prophesying witches of Macbeth. Pemberton, though falling short of a “tragic hero” is nevertheless reminiscent of Agamemnon in the Greek tragedy by his name. Each man in ignorance and arrogance strides boldly into the death-trap set by his wife. Pemberton fails to heed the initial warming given to him in Boston when he meets Serena. He also disregards his personal misgivings as he observes her expanding ruthlessness. Serena is comparable not only to Lady Macbeth but more so to an evil mythological goddess in her commanding presence, her training of the eagle to ride her arm, and her ability to escape retribution.
The novel’s weakness for me was absence of adequate background that would help explain Serena’s murderous ambition. We know only that she is the daughter of a Colorado lumber magnate and that she lost her entire family to illness as a teenager, burned the house, and came East to Boston and a finishing school. Pemberton was warned in Boston when he met and quickly married Serena, and Rash establishes her dark character in the dramatic opening scene.
And perhaps it is realistic not to know the why of Serena’s heartlessness. Does not evil frequently leave us pondering its source?
The book provided lively and lengthy discussion for my book club.
The image of this strong, beautiful, soulless woman, astride her white Arabian horse, pet Mongolian Eagle perched on her arm – amid a ravaged landscape, strewn with carcasses of animals and humans alike, left in the wake of her greed and power, is an image not soon forgotten.
Not for the faint of heart, I nevertheless recommend Serena as winter reading par excellence.
P.S. If you read Babbette’s post that mentioned me last May, you know the story of our family-reading of Macbeth. Babbette and I discussed why I would have gathered my three elementary-age children to read a Shakespearean tragedy. I only surmise that I simply enjoyed teaching the play to that extent. I am grateful they grew to enjoy Shakespeare in spite of forced-reading at a too young age.
P.P.S. from Babbette: Lest anyone doubt where I obtained my penchant for the dark, it all should be very clear now.
While there isn’t much I feel I could add to Mom’s review, the issue of Serena’s past is interesting. I definitely felt the gap of knowledge, and Serena’s own unwillingness to discuss it led me to believe that she might bear some responsibility for it. If she doesn’t bear responsibility, then I guess she could be seen as part victim which would undermine the villainess that she is. And so in this case, not knowing is better.
Ron Rash teaches at Western Carolina, and hails from the Carolinas. With Serena, Rash has created an interesting example of Southern literature, blending Elizabethan and Greek elements into his own Appalachian style of Southern gothic.
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