The Cove By Ron Rash (The Text Publishing Company, $37)
Reviewed by Helen Lehndorf
Ron Rash visited New Zealand earlier this year as part of Wellington Writers and Readers Week. A friend of mine who attended his sessions spoke of his palpable passion for conveying place in his writing and how place is almost the central ‘character’. For Rash, his ‘place’ is Appalachia in the United States of America. His previous novel, ‘Serena’ was set there, as is this new novel, ‘The Cove’.
Siblings Laurel and Hank Shelton live in ‘the cove’ of the book’s title. A dank and barren place, locals believe it is haunted and treat the disfigured Laurel as a witch. Hank has recently returned as an amputee from World War One. The pair struggle to make something of themselves and their seemingly doomed land against enormous odds. One day, Laurel discovers a mute and injured man in the cove;as he slowly heals, he becomes part of life on the farm and brings much hope to Laurel’s bleak life. Things are not as simple as they seem, however – the stranger possesses a past that has dramatic ramifications on the future of the Sheltons.
Ron Rash writes completely without irony (which is at first strange and then deeply refreshing.) Appalachia informs not just the plot of the novel, but Rash’s wonderful, rich language. His writing is often described as ‘poetic’, and it is…but in the best sense of the word, which is to say, specific, precise, deeply evocative. What I really enjoyed about the novel, aside from the thrill of the plot, which is engaging from the outset and then hurtles forward with the urgent seeming inevitability of the worst moments of human history, is the very careful domestic details. Because so much of the novel is spent with Laurel, there are long scenes of her washing, cooking, walking. Rash is willing to really show and sit with these scenes and conveys much about the place and time of the novel through them. He misses no opportunity to enrich our sense of being in Appalachia at the turn of the twentieth century through wonderful details of the kind which no mere visitor to a place could convey. This is writing by someone who knows deeply the place of which he writes and it can be a very bleak, almost gothic place:
‘A misty drizzle fell all morning. Fog tendriled out of the woods, slow wisps merging and unfurling across the cove floor. As the day wore on the fog thickened….all Laurel could see was the scarecrow, its arms raised above the fog as if in rising water.’
Ron Rash wonderfully captures the cadence of the way these characters speak, too. Here is Laurel’s friend Marcie philosophising about marriage:
‘When you’re sparking, it’s all dandelions and honey…but once you’re around someone every day, things you didn’t much notice before, like the way he slurps soup or don’t doff his muddy boots or even the littlest thing like a tune he keeps whistling or how he lays kindling, nags at you like a sore tooth…..maybe calling it being hitched ain’t the prettiest way to say you’re married but it’s the truth to my mind and true in a good way, because you’re working together and depending on each other, and sharing the load.’
The narrative is perfectly-paced – the book begins slowly and meditatively and then as the plot intricacies become more complex and urgent, the pace quickens and the last third of the book is much more thrilling than the beginning of the book suggests. I ‘binge-read’ the last third because the book transcended the artful, ponderous style began with and became an exciting and tragic story as well. The ending of the book is shocking and unpredictable and left me reeling. This is a gripping story, told cleanly and crisply, by a person who has clearly lived and breathed in the terroire which the novel is set and also knows the depths to which people can sink to hold territory and prove a point. This is a wonderfully evocative and poetic book.