Serena: an Appalachian tale of love, obsession and revenge

Serena by Ron Rash, a novel which has recently been made into a film adaptation, begins in 1929 in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where George Pemberton and his new wife set up camp. Pemberton is a timber baron who oversees the logging empire of the Pemberton Lumber Company and this provides the backdrop to the story. But the title of the novel is the key to its plot: Serena, a determined, ruthless and ambitious woman who stops at nothing to get what she wants, is at the heart of this story. Her name is an ironic choice: she is anything but serene.

Rash’s writing hooks the reader in right from the first paragraph:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.” (p. 3)

Throughout the book, Serena and Pemberton’s story is interwoven with the young woman’s, Rachel Harmon. Rachel is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. She struggles to raise her son with almost no acknowledgement from Pemberton; he doesn’t even remember her name.

There are many reviews where Serena is called an “Appalachian Macbeth” and I can clearly see the resemblance. Serena is an extraordinary character, very similar to Lady Macbeth, in that she works to get rid of those who fall into disfavor with her. The reader is only shown glimpses of her background; she refuses to think about the past and only looks forward to the future. Her parents and siblings died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when asked who was managing their Colorado estate, she responds simply, “I had the house burned down before I left” (p. 55).

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other (Macbeth, act 1, scene VII)

In the novel, neither Pemberton nor Serena are sympathetic characters and I found it difficult to empathize with them. Their harsh, ruthless actions lead to violence and murder in the logging camp. Serena is the lead, encouraging Pemberton on in their trail of destruction, but he follows willingly. What bothered me the most is that they don’t show remorse or guilt for their actions; they come across as being psychopathic and Serena appears to have no empathy for others whatsoever. It will be interesting to see what changes have been made in the movie adaptation, which I haven’t seen yet. I expect Serena and Pemberton will be softened somewhat, as audiences tend to dislike movies where they cannot relate at all to the principal characters. It is certainly unusual for protagonists to be entirely unsympathetic or unlikable.

The trailer for Serena:

Although the craziness of the two protagonists is a constant presence throughout the book, comic relief is provided by one of the workers at the logging camp. Ross’s shrewd comebacks made me smile more than once. When the lay preacher, McIntyre, tells the workers that “The only signs you need to follow is in the Bible”, Ross responds dryly:

“What about that sign that says No Smoking on the dynamite shed […] You saying we don’t need to follow that one?” (p. 63)

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I stayed up late to finish reading it because I wanted to know what happened in the end. It really held my attention and that is always a good thing in a book. Ron Rash writes well and I like his gritty style. But some elements of the plot irritated me because of their sheer implausibility, such as the character of the old woman who can see the future and helps the Pembertons out with her psychic powers. There is another similarity to Macbeth here: she reminded me of the Macbeth witches and their prophecies.

By the time I finished reading Serena, I felt that the senseless actions of the Pembertons became too over-the-top, with little character development. They seem one-dimensional because of their sheer lack of compassion for anyone and their obsessive relationship with each other. I hoped that by the end of the novel Rash would elucidate the motivations for Serena’s unrelenting greed and ruthless ambition but he does not dwell on her motives. For me, this is a major weakness in the plot. Again, it will be interesting to see how/whether this is elaborated on by the scriptwriter in the movie adaptation.

Have you read any of Ron Rash’s novels? His new short story collection, Something Rich and Strange, is getting good reviews.

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8 thoughts on “Serena: an Appalachian tale of love, obsession and revenge

  1. The only one I’ve read is The Cove, a couple of years ago now. I enjoyed it quite a lot, but interestinglly, looking back at my review, I also commented on the lack of development of many of the characters, with no clear idea of their motivation. I was told at the time by another reviewer that Serena is his best, and have been meaning to read it ever since…

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    • As you commented on that as well, maybe a lack of character development is simply part of his style of writing. I must say, I do prefer authors to elaborate on characters’ motives. Nevertheless, his writing is powerful, even though it can be frustrating at times when you want to know more about what drives the characters!

      Anyway, Serena is definitely worth a read; Rash knows how to write evocatively about a place. It reminded me of Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell: a gritty novel that’s set in the Ozark mountains, an area similar to Appalachia.

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