In the opening scene of Ron Rash’s excellent new novel Serena, George Pemberton, ruthless and land-hungry timber baron, returns by train to his holdings near Asheville, NC in 1929, with Serena, his wife of two days, in tow. There to meet them at the station are Rachel Harmon—a former camp employee who is carrying Pemberton’s unborn child—and her angry father, bent on revenge. At Serena’s urging, Pemberton quickly settles the score, leaving his opponent disemboweled, the young girl fatherless, and the witnesses at the depot speechless.
Upon returning to camp, the first thing Serena does to establish her own ruthless authority is to size up a nearby cane ash and make a public bet with the skeptical cutting-crew foreman as to the total board feet the tree will yield. Unfortunately for the foreman, he takes Serena’s bet. When the tree is cut and timbered and the results publicly revealed, his fateful bet loses him not only two weeks’ pay, but also his job—leaving no doubt among his fellow timber men as to who is in charge.
From that day forward, woe to any partners, employees, lawmen, or doctors who dare to desert, mislead, or challenge the rising Pemberton dynasty. Serena, as a sideline to her day job of overseeing the cutting and transport of timber, proceeds to import and tame a wild eagle, teaching it to hunt and destroy the area’s deadly timber rattlers, launching its aerial attacks from an imposing perch atop Serena’s forearm, while she sits astride her white Arabian stallion. When the eagle drops one of its victims, and a six-foot venomous snake falls from the sky, landing at the feet of the camp’s preacher, the man goes mad and is removed from his position, attracting unsavory interest and speculation from his fellow workers for months to follow.
The story of the Pembertons’ rise to power takes an even more violent turn when Serena—who wears jodhpurs and boots like a man—becomes pregnant, carries to term, then tragically loses the child, as well as her ability to conceive any future children; on the surface she copes, but underneath it all her vengeful and vindictive tendencies thrive.
When Serena’s quick tourniquet saves the life of a loner/worker whose hand is accidentally severed, she wins the blind loyalty of both him and his mantic mother, gaining a devoted henchman to do her diabolical bidding. Twenty-six months after the honeymoon train ride from Boston, Serena sets out to kill the child her husband fathered before they met. Her first foray into the surrounding hills fails to reveal the child’s whereabouts, but Serena manages to carry out her first longed-for murder: the innocent Widow Jenkins who had been caretaker of the boy. “We’ve both killed now,” Serena tells her husband urgently. “What you felt at the depot, I’ve felt, too. We’re closer, Pemberton, closer than we’ve ever been before.” And for the first time, we get a glimpse of the Lady Macbeth she has become, and the latent tendency that had been there all along. After her sinister pronouncement, her husband muses thusly:
“Madness, Pemberton thought, and remembered the first evening back in Boston, the walk down the cobbled streets to Serena’s lodging, the hollow sound of their footsteps. He remembered the moment he’d stood on the icy step as Serena unlocked the door and went inside, pressed the front room light on. Even when Serena had turned and smiled, Pemberton had lingered. Some dim troubling, almost visceral, keeping him there on the step, in the cold, outside the door. He remembered how he’d pulled off his gloves and stuffed them in his overcoat pocket, brushed some snow flurries off his shoulders as he delayed his entrance a few more moments. Then he’d stepped inside, stepping toward this room as well, into this moment.”
When her latest obsession reveals itself (“just us” she says, passionately kissing Pemberton before setting out under cover of darkness) her husband’s own desire to save the child who already bears such a striking resemblance to his father, initiates the slow unraveling of their marriage leading, ultimately and cataclysmically, to a conclusion so shocking that even though we sense it coming we think “no!” as we read—“no, surely not.” But readers can rest assured, under Ron Rash’s masterful pen and meticulous unfolding narrative, the dramatic conclusion is both thematically and cinematically right for the story. We arrive there breathless, incredulous, but strangely and supremely satisfied.
This is a finely crafted, beautifully rendered, and classically tragic tale of human ambition run amok. I have been a fan of Rash’s work for years, but this surely is his best, most artful novel yet.