Guest Review :: Serena by Ron Rash

Review of Serena
I am so excited to welcome this guest reviewer of Serena to Lit&Leisure! Welcome, Mom!
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 the post that mentioned me last May, you know the story of our family-reading of Macbeth. Elisabeth 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 Elisabeth: Lest anyone doubt where I obtained my penchant for the dark, it all should be very clear now. Also, read my review of Serena here.


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4 Replies to “Guest Review :: Serena by Ron Rash

  1. Congrats, Mama Jayne! And, E., I had NO idea where you got your penchant for the dark, but it's all coming together now….

  2. Hello to you, Elisabeth's Mother! I was so excited to see that you are reviewing this book. This title came across my path in the not-too-distant past, and I thought I might like to read it. As often happens with me, I promptly forgot the title. (This forgetful memory of mine does have its advantages, as it helps keep my TBR pile in check. Sort of.)

    I love it when an interesting title is, by chance, "remembered" to me. Thanks for giving us such a great review.


  3. @Mandy – Mom said it was great for her book club discussion, but since we were trying to stay 'light' I didn't suggest it…maybe in a few months when we've recovered from Irish mental hospitals and dank 18th century prison cells… 😉

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