The CoveThe Cove by Ron Rash

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The dank and dangerous cylinder of a new well, where the walls could collapse at any moment, crushing the digger in a muddy grave; a valley so overwhelmed by a cliff of granite that light shudders and dies in its wet shadow; a voice choked from sound, leaving a man trapped in silence; a young woman isolated by fear and suspicion in a remote mountain cabin: these are the acedian images Ron Rash writes to sobering effect in The Cove.

This is a novel of a place seemingly suspended in time, a forgotten hollow in the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina, where venomous snakes slither, wild parakeets flit like flocks of bright green faeries and where residents still believe in witches’ curses. But the modern world invades this isolated land with the wounded and dead from European trenches. As their broken bodies return home, fear of the enemy Hun incites public hysteria.

Rash weaves a story with themes that ring loudly to the present-day: how patriotism can be a mask for prejudice and a justification for violence, how war robs us of our sensibilities as well as our citizens.Yet instead of stating the obvious, he shows us with an atmospheric mystery that runs languid on the surface, but races with an unstoppable current in depths you cannot fathom.

The Cove is written in an opalescent and mannered style that is reminiscent of a 19th century Gothic romance. It abounds with literary archetypes: a persecuted young woman dreaming of escape and the love of a strong man; a mysterious stranger who speaks with music instead of words; a wealthy young villain with delusions of grandeur; a Greek chorus of simple country folk; a gruff but well-meaning brother. We know these characters because they have been with us from our earliest memories of faerie tales and mythology. We sense that our star-crossed lovers will fare no better than Romeo and Juliet; we are wiser than to hope for a hero. Whether or not a hero appears is for you to discover.

The novel’s flaws can be found in Rash’s over-simplification of the pretentious and cowardly Army recruiter, Chauncey Feith, and the backward suspicions of the townsfolk. He also dwells overlong on Laurel’s isolation and loneliness and treats her response to romance with little-girl wonder, which nearly degrades her character rather than invoking the reader’s empathy.

Despite some of weaker character development, this reader is delighted to have discovered a writer who can craft a powerful story with captivating language.

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