The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.
Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.
Never has a titular character deserved her title as much as Serena in Ron Rash’s Serena. Because Serena Pemberton is everything. She’s intelligent, ambitious, not exactly beautiful, unconventional, and daring; but mostly, she’s ruthless.
It is rare that a book physically affects me, but Serena did. As I rocketed towards the finale, my heart pumped faster and my palms started to sweat. Turning each page felt like the long and low creaking of a door opening in a horror film. There is a suffocating sensation, a feeling, nay an absolute certainty, that terrible events are approaching.
But while the plot chugs with refreshing speed, Ron Rash writes in restrained yet beautiful prose to create a rather thoughtful story. Serena is almost universally recommendable because it bridges commercial and literary fiction in the best way; it’s an exciting thriller that questions standards of femininity, the dangers of ambition, and the lengths of love. Serena will destroy anyone if it helps herself, her husband, and their lumber empire. Because of the early 20th century society Serena lived in and the society we still live in, it’s tempting to interpret Serena’s character as a jealous and unhinged harpy, a woman gone mad following her failure to produce a child, her one true purpose on Earth. But that’s an unfair and sexist designation. Serena is simply ambition magnified a thousand times. In fact, her qualities would likely be admired if she were a man. She’s both awe-inspiring and reprehensible and certainly one of the greatest characters I’ve read about in a long while.
While the main conflict plays out between Rachel, the mother of Serena’s husband’s illegitimate child, and barren Serena, the surrounding Appalachian landscape is ruined, logged until it too rests barren. Serena is thus also a proto-environmentalist tale set in the 1930s. The most alarming part is how so little seems to have changed since that era. Unbridled avarice and unthinking apathy towards the wonder and precariousness of the natural world are still common today, an unfortunate fact that only heightens the novel’s relevance and appeal. With a fantastic touch, Rash includes a Greek chorus of lumberjacks to discuss the personal and natural destruction around them. At the end of the novel, one worker states solemnly, “I think this is what the end of the world will be like.”
And he’s right. As the forests fall, leaving scarred and empty lands, along fall the characters’ facades until only the ugliest scraps of human nature remain, deformed and laid out to fester in the sun.