Monday, October 19, 2009

#55 - Serena

After being on vacation for almost five days, one would have thought I'd have gotten further through the stack of books I brought with me, bought at the sale at the Vancouver Public Library, and purchased on Granville Island. Not so. I managed to finish Ron Rash's Serena, and am about halfway through The Tipping Point (and I have read Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It!, which is technically #56, but I'm going to talk about it and the Gladwell in the same post).

Annnywaay. This is the first book that I've read from American writer Rash, and not to be cliched but it certainly won't be the last. Set in the Appalachians during the Depression, Serena tells the story of an ambitious lumber baron who marries an enigmatic, determined young woman who changes his life irrevocably. When Pemberton arrives back to the logging settlement with his new wife, Serena, in tow, he's met at the station by Rachel Harmon and her father. The former there at the behest of her father, out to protect her dignity, as Pemberton has gotten the young girl pregnant.

A fight ensues, and Harmon ends up overpowered by the tall, powerful Pemberton. Estranged from her former lover and about to give birth, Rachel heads back to their cabin to make her way on her own while Pemberton and his new bride are similarly disposed to making their mark on the landscape that surrounds the community of Waynesville. Serena's driven by money and success. She sees natural resources as simply a means to gain more and more power and status. She's cold, calculating and focussed. Yet, it's this focus and intensity that attracted Pemberton to her in the first place. As the relationship grows more complex, their attachment suffers from the stress of her ambition, and the lengths to which she'll go to achieve her goals. The results are deadly, not just for the trees, but for anyone who might stand in her way -- and that includes young Rachel and her little baby boy.

The idea that human beings are inescapably tied to their environment runs throughout the narrative. As Serena destroys the forests, their workers suffer more and more accidents. As they drive further and further to clearcut the entire area of its trees, there's a movement to create a national park and save the environment. Of course, Serena and Pemberton stand on the side of progress, remark upon the size and structure of the forest in terms of a profit and loss statement. There's a particularly poignant scene where Pemberton and his wife pose for a photograph in front of a raw, clearcut field proud of their accomplishment. However, what they've left behind is a crew of maimed, injured and, in many cases, deceased men who gave their lives for their profit.

The novel truly picks up about two-thirds of the way in. The further Serena will go to get what she wants, the more intriguing and active the story becomes. In some ways, the beginning of the novel is a bit muddled -- and there are sections that switch point of view to some of the loggers themselves that I think would have been more effective if they hadn't the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern-type, Waiting for Godot-esque dialogue that felt a little affected. That said, there's nothing I like more than a truly intriguing female lead character who refuses to be defined in any true way, and Serena more than fits this bill. Not unlike Catherine Land in Robert Goolrick's equally excellent A Reliable Wife, Serena's lack of a moral compass more than makes up for any of the novel's shortcomings. In parts, especially the more shocking scenes, there were moments that I actually physically gasped over her actions. You can't ask more from a novel than to that, can you?

There's a reading group guide, Browse Inside, and a really interesting article Rash wrote for the P.S. section about the interesting places his research took him.

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