Ron Rash: Serena – a heroine whom no one but myself will much like

It’s well known that Jane Austen predicted that Emma would be ‘a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’. She has been proved wrong over time, but this prediction might be more justified in the case of Ron Rash’s Serena, the ‘heroine’ of the eponymous novel about a ruthless couple intent on building a logging empire in America just after the Great Depression.

When I heard Ron Rash talk about this book and his writing in general at the Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2017, he seemed to have grudging but real admiration for his anti-heroine. ‘Women in American fiction often only have power within the family, so I wanted to go beyond the stereotypical’, he said, and the truth is she is the kind of pioneer/cowboy that American history and fiction idolises, if she had appeared at an earlier time and if she had been a man. He described how the image of Serena appeared to him as a vision of a woman on a white horse with an eagle on her wrist – something almost medieval in that image, but also something straight out of a Western – and the scenes of her hunting snakes with the eagle she has painstakingly tamed are among the most powerful ones in the book. Yet even here, one of the workers mutters that what she is doing is going against nature and that will have consequences.

There is quite a bit of melodrama in the way Serena and her husband George Pemberton behave with their workers and partners in their logging emporium, with anyone who opposes their cruel deforestation policies, with Rachel, the young girl who was impregnated by Pemberton before he went off to Boston to meet and marry Serena. There is something of the stylised Greek tragedy set-up about the book: the main characters doing things that seem incredibly cruel or foolish or both, while the workers fulfil the role of the chorus who comments on the inevitability or folly of it all. Perhaps that explains why the workers are not that well developed or distinguishable as individual characters.

You know my passion for social, ecological and economic issues, so needless to say the aspect of the book that I found most interesting was the description of the destruction of the natural world in the interests of the economy, and the conflict between smallholders, loggers and those conservationists eager to create national parks. I also found the description of the historical period interesting, this being just after the Great Depression when jobs were scarce and labour conditions extremely exploitative. I couldn’t help comparing it to the present day, when environmental issues and economic collapse are once more on the agenda, and wondering whether it would lead to more or less exploitation of low-paid workers.

Finally, although the plot might be a bit extreme and brutal, the characters unappealing, I do find Rash’s writing quite beautiful, by turns poetic and bleak, but always very evocative, with a keen eye for nature. There’s something about it that reminds me of Kent Haruf or Sam Shepard – the darkness of the American ‘lone ranger’ myth.

I bought this book three years ago but finally got around to reading it now together with Fiction Fan (who I gather was not a huge fan of it) and Kelly, who also profoundly disliked Serena as a character. I think all three of us are in agreement that we wished there had been more chapters about the plight of Rachel and her young son.

Monthly Reading Summary: June in the United States

June was the first month that I experimented with my new geographical reading initiative, which means reading mostly (but not exclusively) authors from a particular country – or potentially books set in a specific country. I started off with the United States, because it is a country I often ignore in my reading. And it worked so well that I am certainly planning to continue doing this geographically themed reading at least until the end of year.

I read 8 novels by American authors, plus a biographical study of American women by an American woman – so a total of 9 books. Six women authors, including big names of the past such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles, popular contemporary authors such as Laura Lippman and Meg Wolitzer, and less well-known authors such as Laura Kasischke and Diana Souhami. The last of these, Wild Girls (review to come), is a book about the relationship and love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two wealthy American expats and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I first came across the chromatically restrained art of Romaine Brooks at the Barbican exhibition about artistic couples and wanted to know more about her.

The three male authors I read were Kent Haruf, Sam Shepard and David Vann, who all proved to be a very welcome respite from the rather self-absorbed American authors I have read previously (who may have put me off reading American books). Surprisingly, they all write about marginalised, impoverished or rural communities that we tend to think of as ‘typically’ American landscapes, filled with macho behaviour. Yet each of these authors demonstrate great sensitivity and empathy for human frailty.

So, all in all, quite a diverse and happy American reading experience, although I was perhaps less impressed with those particular books by Meg Wolitzer and Laura Lippman (compared with some of their others).

In addition to my focus on the US, I also had a bit of a Bristol CrimeFest hangover and read some more of the books I bought there. All three were enjoyable and very quick reads: Kate Rhodes’ atmospheric, closed island community in Ruin Beach, Charlie Gallagher’s almost viscerally painful He Will Kill You about domestic violence and Cara Black’s latest instalment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in Bel Air, which tackles France’s colonial past and present.

Last but not least, two books about betrayed women from very different decades: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance set in the 1950s, while Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is very much of the present moment and set in London. While the former remains stoic and resourceful, the latter is prone to self-destructive or self-belittling behaviour. Both books can be quite painful to read, although Queenie is also very funny in parts.

So, 14 books in total, 10 by women authors, zero in translation, which is quite unusual for me (reflects the geographical emphasis, I suppose).

Four More American Reads

June was my month of reading mainly American authors and I’ve done quite well in terms of reading, not so well in terms of reviewing. Therefore, I’ll write four mini reviews in this post, before I turn to my attention to Russian authors next week.

Cowboyland = Sam Shepard: Cruising Paradise

Strictly speaking, geographically, this is not cowboy territory, since most of the short stories, flash fictions, fragments of prose are set in the desert areas of South Dakot and New Mexico, so cattle would starve in these locations. But it has that Western feel to it: rough and ready men (and women), loners, dreaming of escape, unable to fully articulate their feelings. Sometimes a child is observing these grown-ups and quietly damning yet forgiving them for their inexplicable yearning. Dust and gravel, shoddy motel rooms, half-abandoned diners and service stations… it’s a road trip through the America that time forgot. Anything but Paradise, in fact. Made me miss the sensitive cowboy that Sam Shepard clearly was.

More defeated adults = David Vann: Aquarium

The Virginie Despentes of the Northwestern United States, except it’s even more poignant when seen through the eyes of a twelve-year old. This is a tragic portrayal of life at the margins, for those who are barely making ends meet, for those who somehow fall through the cracks in a society that has barely any safety nets. Caitlin and her mother nevertheless have managed to find a modus vivendi for themselves – imperfect, no frills, but acceptable, with a little imaginative outlet and escape for Caitlin at the local aquarium (which takes the place of a babysitter until her mother can pick her up after work). But then their whole world falls apart when Caitlin meets a suspiciously friendly old man at the aquarium and discovers things about her mother’s past that she would rather not have known.

This was a really dark and terrible book to read. Beautifully written, completely moving, with perhaps a rather too rushed ending (with a tiny glimmer of hope that didn’t feel quite real). I was torn between feeling sadness at the mother’s almost neverending hard work and her whole mind and soul embodying anger:

Welcome to the adult world, coming soon. I work so I can work more. I try not to want anything so maybe I’ll get something. I starve so I can be less and more. I try to be free so I can be alone. And there’s no point to any of it. They left out that part.

But then I hear of the child’s bewilderment and suffering and cannot quite forgive the adult who makes her feel like that, no matter how damaged that adult is herself.

The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable. My mother’s anger extending infinitely, a rage we’d never escape. She had always been my saftey, the two of us piled together on the bed… To have this place become unsafe left nowhere else.

Not So Golden Age = Laura Lippman: Lady in the Lake

1960s Baltimore was not an integrated town and Jews and blacks are still made to feel like outsiders. Maddie Schwartz is a spoilt housewife who suddenly goes through an existential crisis and decides to change her life. She moves out of her comfortable home, takes a young black policeman as her lover and starts working at a local newspaper, determined to make her name as a journalist, becoming somewhat unhealthily obsessed with the death of a black woman whom she labels the ‘lady in the lake’. Lippman is good at rendering Maddie’s (and everyone else’s) muddy motives for wanting to investigate the murder. None of the characters are particularly endearing, even though we hear from each of them in turn, even the most minor ones. I was not smitten with the storyline, but felt it provided a nice slice of American life in the mid 1960s.

Gilded Age = Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley

I suddenly had a craving to reread this, and of course made full use of my newly acquired Folio edition from Second Shelf. Ripley falls in love with the lifestyle, the glamour, the privileged ease that Dickie Greenleaf exhudes from every pore (as well as with Dickie himself). It has also made me want to see the two Ripley films again: Alain Delon as the hugely ambiguous and magnetic Ripley in En Plein Soleil, and Jude Law as the charismatic, moody Greenleaf in Minghella’s more recent film. This is, needless to say, not the cover that I have on my Folio edition, but a pulp cover dating from soon after the original publication.