I loved Ron rash’s gritty, atmospheric Depression-era novel, Serena, and I’m looking forward to the movie version, where the badass title character will be played by Jennifer Lawrence—lately Katniss Everdeen in the solid adaptation of The Hunger Games. But Rash’s follow-up to that electrifying novel, a lackluster collection of stories called Burning Bright, left me flat.
This latest offering disappoints in much the same way those stories did: it feels small and too quiet. In fact, The Cove feels like a short story idea stretched past its rightful size. It’s not bad, certainly, but it possesses only tiny patches of the dark tension and classic drama that made Serena so great.
The cove of the novel’s title lies in backwoods Appalachia and the locals believe it to be cursed. The closest patch of land to it is farmed by the Shelton family, which has dwindled, in the midst of World War I, to only two members: Hank, a young veteran who lost a hand in Europe, and his sister Laurel, who is pretty and very smart, but the target of a lot of town mockery because she was born with a large “birth stain” across her shoulder blade, and so the locals believe her to be a witch.
The Sheltons are unlucky, no doubt: their parents died too young, in nasty ways, and their farm barely survives each year. But their luck starts to change when a grungy young man named Walter washes ashore on the Sheltons’ property. He can’t speak, but can play the flute beautifully. The Sheltons figure out that he was on his way to New York when something happened that he can’t seem to communicate, and doesn’t want to.
That something, Rash shows us, was that Walter was imprisoned and escaped, nearly killing a man in his flee.
Still, on the Sheltons’ farm, Walter is a godsend. He helps Hank rebuild the fence and dig a well, and falls in love with poor neglected Laurel. Always, though, the secret of his imprisonment—and what he did to deserve it—hangs over all their heads.
Meanwhile, a poncy rich army recruiter drums up anti-German sentiment in town, and so fervently that even the college’s foreign language instructor faces the town’s wrath for having the audacity to know German.
All these things come to a head, and while Rash makes that climax good, it’s also simple and a little too pat. His style, too, is plain, and altogether the novel is a very fast read, but an equally shallow one.
The strength of Serena lay in the feeling of doom that Rash evoked in his depiction of a plagued logging camp. This time around, Rash tries to achieve the same sense of treacherous dread but instead of building it through events and characters, he simply tells us that people think the cove is unlucky—it doesn’t work nearly as well, and, unfortunately, neither does this novel.