“What made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting small things first… it’s amazing how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. After more time passed you could let yourself remember, even want to remember. But even then what you felt those first days could return and remind you the grief was still there, like old barbed wire embedded in a tree’s heartwood.”
Written by Ron Rash and published in 2008, Serena is set in 1930s North Carolina and tells the story of the newly-wed couple, Serena and George Pemberton. As they return home and with Serena on board, the couple plan to change their timber business into an empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattlesnakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together, they take charge of the woodlands and ruthlessly kill or vanquish all those who fall out of their favour. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son that George has fathered without her.
The following post is a review of the book only. You can read my review of the film in comparison to the book here.
Serena is a remarkably well-written book with poetic and colourful imagery and powerful leading characters. Set in the beautifully described Smoky Mountains, Rash brings every detail to life with his highly-polished use of detailed language, as he tells a uniquely dark tale of deceit and revenge.
As you would expect from a story of betrayal in a male-led industry, Rash explores many themes, most notably of greed, corruption, murder, obsession, jealousy, and desperation. But what makes them stand out is his use of gender reversal. Pemberton may be the boss, but this story is about its title character: Serena. Serena has no boundaries; she takes control, makes threats to get her own way, and will stop at nothing to ensure that people think of her as more than just a wife.
Her presence is unforgettable, as the book paints an image of her making her mark in the world, standing on top of a self-made tower of the bodies of those who have gotten in her way. She is such a well-crafted character and certainly has a Lady Macbeth vibe to her, as she’s beautifully mesmerising and deceitfully threatening at the same time, showing absolutely no ounce of remorse whatsoever.
But whilst her character is so well fleshed out in the present, we don’t get to know her more personally aside from the sole focus on her committed need to seek revenge. She obviously has a madness stirring up inside of her, and all for good reasons, but I wanted more narrative from her point of view, to see her obsessions and greed building up and to know how she feels about being unable to bear a child of her own and having a husband who neglects his loyalties.
There’s so much going on around Serena to fuel these fires, and so much in her past that isn’t explained, that some deeper engagement is needed at times. Serena’s actions speak loudly enough, but her powerful character does somewhat diminish the more in-depth themes and humane issues at the heart of the story which often feel left behind.
There’s no denying the beauty in Rash’s prose, but there’s a lot about this book that doesn’t have any impact at all. With a heavy focus on the timber industry itself, as well, there are many conversations about contracts, schemes, deals and partnerships within their business. It is a very complex story at times with many characters and under-handed acts of deception. But anything that doesn’t involve Serena and Pemberton doesn’t quite have the same effect as that of Serena’s character.
She is undoubtedly the driving force behind it all, but whilst the story is so rich in detail, the heights and darkness of the mountains and trees do sometimes overshadow its more insignificant characters. It certainly isn’t tense enough for one with death and murder on every page, so I wasn’t able to be completely taken in by it.
That being said, I won’t skip at the chance to read another of Rash’s books because he truly has a way with words.
Serena was adapted into a film in 2014 which you can read my comparison review for here or watch the trailer for below: