This short novel, which has more real content and lasting power to move the reader than many much longer works, has introduced me to Ron Rash whose writing I shall make a point of seeking out in the future.
The prologue - a device which I normally find superfluous - holds many of the keys to his power as a writer: the clear, economical, unassuming prose; the ability to create a sense of place and people; a suggestion of mystery or menace to hook your interest. There is the rural wilderness of some Tennessee backwater, the isolation and superstition of the local people, who have hung protective charms at the entrance to the dark cove into which the sun never shines, where bad luck strikes the inhabitants, the one spot where locals are happy to see a Government official survey prior to flooding it for a future TVA reservoir.
Ron Rash has already begun to hook me with the yarn of this outsider unravelling some tragedy from the past, when he shifts back in the main body of the story to the life of Laurie Stanton, doomed to grow up in the cove after her father's unwise purchase of cheap land where the chestnut woods prove diseased. Shunned by the nearby townsfolk because of an unsightly birth mark, even regarded by some as a witch, this sensitive, bookish girl gives up any thought of education and escape to run the domestic side of the small farm. Her brother Hank, returned wounded with a lost hand from the First World War in distance Europe, is bent on doing up the farm prior to his marriage. He is only too glad to use the services of Walter, the young camper whom Laurie finds lying sick in the woods, after being drawn by his skilful flute-playing. Walter's inability either to speak or to read and write do not prevent his becoming a companion to this lonely young woman.
And so the framework is set up for a tightly plotted, often moving yarn with some moments of high tension. All the threads are brought together for the dramatic climax, which leaves you guessing over some major points to the last page, and even after that with a good deal to reflect on about say, the nature of loss and of life, in which intense personal relationships may be of great value, whilst they are also in the scale of things - the dark, massive cliff of the cove - of no significance at all.
The story is an interesting take on how the lives of ordinary people can be affected by a war on the other side of the world. Rash is good on what sounds like the authentic period detail, including life on a fairly primitive farm. He is very convincing in getting inside the head of a young woman, and his main characters are mostly well-developed with strong, realistic and varying emotions. Perhaps Walter's thoughts remain unclear and some of the minor players tend towards stereotypes, but overall this is a gripping story which succeeds both as popular and literary fiction.