Its difficult to say anything about Ron Rash’s Serena that the novel itself doesn’t convey more clearly, possibly even more quickly. Possibly its difficult to summarize in part because it is such a simple story. A Depression-era timber baron, George Pemberton, and his fierce, beautiful new bride, the titular Serena, push to finish clear-cutting their land in the Great Smoky Mountains before the newly formed National Park’s eminent domain forces them to sell. The ruthless couple will stop at nothing to secure control of their fortunes or revenge themselves on their enemies. Like Julius Cesar played in World War II costume (or MacBeth—ahem—recast in 1930s North Carolina) Serena is a familiar tale against a novel background.
The story opens as the new couple’s train pulls into the station in Waynesville, North Carolina. Pemberton is bringing his wife home for the first time after several months in Boston. Rachel, one of the timber camp mess staff, awaits the train, visibly pregnant, her infuriated father beside her. With his wife’s encouragement and support Pemberton kills the other man in a brief, brutal fight on the station platform using the knife that was Serena’s wedding gift to him. The incident defines the three central characters and establishes a pattern that will play out again and again throughout the work, the stakes rising as Serena assumes an increasingly active role. The pervasive violence and fear slowly degrade Pemberton’s personality, driving him to alcoholism and subterfuge, demonstrating to Serena that he may not be the mate she deserves after all.
The novelist Ron Rash is also a poet, so its unsurprising that the complexity of his novel comes from the layered symbolism and spiraling foreshadowing, rather than from the plot. Like a good poet, Rash doesn’t throw words away. Every line builds toward the conclusion until it feels inevitable, prophetic. Every thread is woven back in and neatly tied off.
Serena is dense with images of grandeur and destruction. Serena supervises cutting crews from the back of an enormous white horse, carrying an eagle trained to hunt snakes. Pemberton and his partners slaughter deer by the dozen on their hunting excursions. Rattlesnakes haunt the camp. The land is destroyed. Buildings burn. Serena herself suffers a harrowing late-term miscarriage. Workers are killed grotesquely, bitten by snakes and spiders, struck by misplaced ax blades, slipping between the logs in the millpond to drown trapped beneath. They die in such numbers that when the business prepares to relocate to a new camp, the graveyard is the first thing they build. And of course, there are all the people the Pembertons murder.
Serena is a force, exerting her power over nature, disturbing the balance, a point driven home repeatedly throughout the work, as when the workers discuss the rat problem in camp (“The thing to kill them is snakes…but that eagle done upset what the Orientals call the yen and the yang”), or when Serena expresses her pride in the destruction wrought on Nolan Mountain, telling one rich couple, “leaving something as it is leaves no mark at all” (p. 241), and insisting on having her photograph taken before the wasteland of stumps.
The novel is similarly highly structured, divided into five parts, the chapters focusing on the central couple periodically interspersed with commentary from one of the timber crews, with slightly longer segments following Rachel and her baby, Pemberton’s illegitimate son. The film copy includes an interview with Rash, reprinted from the journal Grist, in which he explains that modeled his novel on Marlowe, envisioning it as a five act Elizabethan play, punctuated by a chorus of rustics, and that both Serena and the elderly Mrs. Galloway speak in “lose iambic pentameter.”
With its striking dramatic imagery and growing sense of foreboding its easy to see why the novel was selected for a film adaptation–though the critics don’t seem to have appreciated the results very much. I think I’ll steer clear.