Poet and author Ron Rash has carved out a reputation as chief chronicler of doom within the Appalachian mountains of North America. His previous novel, the best-selling Serena, was an epic tale of death and destruction set in the region’s depression-era lumber industry, with a Lady Macbeth-type character sweeping away all things bark and blood put before her. Stunning short story collection Burning Bright, published in the UK last year, laid bare the daily heartache of honest folk trying to make ends meet in the area’s impoverished communities.
Rash’s latest effort, The Cove – a magnificent novel that will surely enhance his standing yet further – is again set in these dark hills which the author himself calls home. The book’s prologue details a modern day water company official entering the cove – a place, he is told, ‘where only bad things happen’. He finds at the bottom of a well something that ‘assumed a round and pale solidity, except for the holes where the eyes had been’.
Evidently, this is another book that isn’t going to be sweetness and light.
Having established his customary sense of foreboding, Rash switches the narrative to 1917 to tell the story of how the skull came to rest. The early chapters quickly establish the novel’s three main characters. Laurel Shelton and her brother Hank live a tough, lonely existence working the barren land in the darkest corner of the cove – a place which the locals think is cursed, ‘where ghosts and fetches wandered’. Laurel is all but outcast by the nearby community, having been bullied since childhood because of her birthmark. The locals afford Hank a degree of begrudging respect, if not friendship, on account of him having recently returned from the war’s frontline.
Into this quiet, eerie location stumbles a man with a secret. The reader knows the character has recently escaped captivity and is in hiding – he thinks unseen – while he decides his next move. Laurel becomes entranced by the flute-playing stranger, and opportunity to befriend him arrives when he is attacked by a swarm of bees and needs nursing back to health. Laurel senses her life shifting, she had been ‘waiting for something or someone to arrive. Waiting. She had been waiting, waiting in the cabin…for her life to begin, her life.’ Change of one sort or another is coming, of that we can be sure.
The man passes the siblings a letter: ‘The bearer of this note is Walter Smith. A childhood affliction has made him not able to speak. He wishes to buy a train ticket to New York City.’ The reader knows there must be more to Walter’s story than he is letting on. The slow piecing together of his secret, and what trouble it will lead to, drives forward this beautifully-controlled tale.
The narrative regularly switches to the nearby town, providing context, and introducing us to the villains from whom trouble will surely come. These secondary characters are rather one-dimensionally drawn – more serving the plot than real entities in themselves. The war means bombast and paranoia are widespread. Sergeant Chauncey Feith, enjoying his position of unearned authority, is desperate to make an impression, which he does by causing trouble for a German-speaking professor and in planning the homecoming of a war hero. Brute Jubel Parton is simply out to bring mayhem in whatever way he can. The margins of war provide fertile ground for bullies and witch-hunts; its modern-day resonance is obvious.
With all characters in play, Rash treats us to a glorious slow burn before the inevitable carnage. The writer is every inch the wordsmith one would expect of a man with four books of poetry to his name. The consistency of exquisitely-crafted sentences is astounding. In particular, Rash revels in the language of toil: the building of fences, the mending of clothes, the digging of wells. Ravishing descriptions of the earthy landscape abound.
Despite being a dealer in sorry tales, Rash displays a masterful ability to offer his protagonists, and the reader, glimmers of hope and happiness. His handling of the relationship between Walter and Laurel is a joy to behold – all snatched moments, tender embraces, creeping realisation, and dreams we know will never come true.
A cover quote states that Rash’s writing recalls both John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. Even if that does seem a little adulatory, the comparisons are not without foundation. Like that great duo, Rash has a natural affinity with decent people leading honestly-lived lives. And in The Cove, like his other work, a sense of tragic doom is forever hovering nearby. In particular, it would be difficult to read these taut, granite-like but strangely beautiful sentences without calling to mind McCarthy. But the Southern Gothic literary tradition of decaying landscapes, damaged characters, suspense and violence – inhabited by the likes of McCarthy, Faulkner, and McCullers – is where The Cove most snugly fits.
When the book’s denouement arrives, it is as brutal as one has come to expect. The once-quiet cove comes under attack in a riveting passage that leaves our nerves shredded. While Rash’s ending offers us a small comfort or two, the real afterglow is in the realisation of having read a work of absolute stone-cold genius.