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Interesting but unmoving
on 4 January 2011
This novel, apparently based on real-life characters, is set in North Carolina in the depression of 1929 and the early 1930s and built around newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton who own the Pemberton Logging Company, razing the previously magnificent mountainous landscape to the ground with their ruthless tree-felling operations. The human story amid all this is in part the equally ruthless methods by which this couple deal with anyone who crosses their paths or threaten their business in any way, and perhaps in greater part the illegitimate child conceived prior to their marriage, between George Pemberton and his employee Rachel Harmon.
From the point of view of visual imagery, notably relating to landscape, wildlife and horticulture, the writing is of a consistently high standard throughout, and leaves the reader with little doubt that Ron Rash knows this part of the world (in that time period) very well indeed, as well as the local dialects. The prose is also a mixture of two sorts however - on the one hand highly descriptive and expansive in vocabulary, but on the other hand it was never poetic or appealing for its own sake. I was reminded of Dennis Lehane's The Given Day - a tale based in Boston in the 1920s - partly because it was so much better in these regards, and its character development was superior too. And it's in that field in which Ron Rash's novel displays its most disappointing weaknesses; the leading characters, in the main, just don't ring true, and nor does the only real relationship to speak of, that between George and Serena Pemberton. It's because although there are many references to the love the husband feels for his wife, and apparently she feels in return, it rarely ever feels deep or genuine, never touching or heartfelt. Everything they say and do to each other suggests a perfect match, but there's a shallowness to it that undermines the fundamental story, makes it less convincing somehow. Likewise, the counterpoint to this supposed romance is violence and murder, and even in this regard there's a sense of emotional detachment for the reader, because as often as not the victim has not been fully fleshed out as a character so the impact for the reader is minimal. Equally, there is a touch of spontaneity and casualness to most of the murderous acts that belittle the severity and horror of the acts themselves. Generally speaking, it's difficult to like anyone in particular - with the possible exception of Rachel Harmon, the mother of the illegitimate child - but it's almost as difficult to really dislike anyone either, possibly because of all the mixed messages being sent out. Both Mr and Mrs Pemberton have qualities to admire but at the same time commit frequent acts to despise them for, so just as you might be beginning to warm towards Serena, for example, she does something utterly abhorrent that washes any admiration away. Possibly this is a result of basing the story on a person who existed in real life, for in the real world people are rarely all good or all bad, not good or bad enough to draw characters out of for a work of fiction, at any rate.
If anything, the peripheral (and possibly fictional) characters are more interesting, in particular the workers at the lumbar equivalent of the coal-face. One can only assume that the depictions of regular deaths and serious injuries are accurate and authentic, and paint a suitably bleak picture for those hundreds of men willing to risk their lives for a pittance of an income against a backdrop of the Great Depression. In some ways, this telling of a story that really happened - the losses of so many lives through desperation and employer greed, is the best reason to buy and read this book, because the Pembertons are not really appealing enough to carry the tale on their own, despite Serena being a most unusual woman insofar as her knowledge of the logging industry is concerned and her ability to negotiate with the hardest of businessmen and politicians. I think it's also worth saying that the novel's title is slightly misleading because the tale only occasionally feels as if it's about Serena Pemberton. A more centralised and isolated character is Rachel Harmon, and the tale might just as well have been named after her.
It's quite good and a worthy read, a little better than average but I have a feeling that it will be of greater interest to those more familiar with (or keen on) the history of the logging industry of Depression-era America, that its appeal might be somewhat limited in this part of the world. The personalities and their relationships just don't provide enough interest or appeal to make the story stand alone as a great read, rather it's the backdrop of time, place and history that are more thought-provoking.