Ron Rash’s novel, “The Cove” goes to a dark place
by Rob Neufeld
Rash has never stinted on opening scenes. His 2004 novel, “Saints at the River,” starts with a drowning girl’s stream-of-consciousness. “Serena,” his 2008 novel, soon a movie, begins with a knife fight. “The Cove” also grabs fast.
A TVA agent, checking out land for a reservoir, enters “the cove” of the title—a dark, accursed place in fictionalized Madison County—and makes a shocking and mysterious discovery.
The novel then tells the pre-story, which takes place in 1918 and involves the internment of German prisoners at Hot Springs. Not until the last pages is the opening mystery resolved.
People will talk
People will talk—not just the characters in the book, who spread fear about the heroine and Germans, but also readers, who’ll imagine alternate endings to Rash’s tale of hate and love.
In “The Cove,” Rash masterfully poises suspense elements; and gives full reign to other strengths: language; awe; symbolism; cast of characters; and mountain knowledge.
Laurel Shelton, the young woman who lives with her brother on their late parents’ farm, walks through the woods and glimpses Carolina Parakeets, the flocking beauties shot to extinction by farmers.
Walking to the cornfield, she feels the cliff looming above her. “There wasn’t a gloamier place in the whole Blue Ridge,” her mother had said. The cove was “a cursed place…where ghosts and fetches wandered.”
Shadow-land is a distinctive feature of this region’s literature. In “Christy,” Catherine Marshall’s 1967 novel, bright-spirited Fairlight Spencer feels oppressed by the darkness of the mountains that enclose her cove in east Tennessee.
“Christy, holp me,” she cries, as the sun vanishes behind the mountains just as typhoid snuffs her light. “The shadder’s after me.”
Laurel follows the parakeets to the discovery of a ragged young flautist camping out on her mountain. His playing is otherworldly; he’s a mute. Laurel doesn’t yet know that he has escaped from the prison camp.
Dreamily, she goes back to the only sunny spot in the cove—a ledge—to retrieve her brother Hank’s shirt, drying on the rock.
Then, “a purple butterfly lit on the stream edge to sip water. A pretty hue, most anyone would say…Just not pretty on white skin,” Laurel reflects, thinking about her birthmark, which she had once tried to efface.
Regarding accursedness, cursors pointed at Laurel in a few ways: her residence in the bad place; a history of calamities happening around her; her birthmark, which made it easy for people to shun her; and, ultimately, exceptional loneliness.
“Laurel felt she herself might be a ghost. Did a ghost even know it was a ghost?”
You would classify Rash’s writing as “realism”—real people, hard times, clearly rendered details—but you could not dismiss the feeling of fairyland.
Characters pass through the cove and see signs: fallen chestnut trees, blighted like much else; a bottle tree with charms; gravestones; pools.
The book’s water imagery alone, tugging at many places, indicates how “The Cove” works strongly on two levels. It fulfills Rash’s interest in sustaining, in a novel, the revelation and sound of his poetry.
World War I
Hank’s shirt is cut off at one arm to fit his amputation, suffered at war. Walter’s muteness is another kind of wartime loss. Other characters, walking the streets of Mars Hill and participating in the drama in the cove, show scars.
Tilman Estep, a cynical veteran, had lost one eye overseas. Old Slidell Hampton, the Sheltons’ neighbor and friend, is haunted by a Civil War memory that stands out as a stunning one-page story within the novel. Sgt. Chauncey Feith, the gung-ho home front recruiter, is branded by his fear of being deemed a coward.
During a trip to Asheville, Chauncey stops in on the stone cutter, W.O. Wolfe, Thomas’ father, and imagines the unveiling of his own monument.
At the ceremony, Chauncey would call his future wife to his side, and she “would turn to the crowd and talk about how Senator Chauncey Feith had dedicated his life to serving his country.”
Chauncey’s fantasy puts him in a different class from Serena. The protagonist of “Serena” is a mythological fulfillment of world domination. Chauncey’s demon is more modest—vanity and meanness disguised as patriotism.
Laurel’s fantasy life is as pure a romance as you can find. And she’s smart in many ways—as a student, woodswoman, detective, and strategist. But her mountain isolation makes her a spirit of nature, and a votary to beauty.
After taking Walter to her and Hank’s home to heal him from a fever, she returns to the outcrop to get Walter’s haversack, and reconnects with her refuge.
“Up here,” Rash writes, “the wide shelf of granite gathered the sun’s light and held it, swaddled Laurel in its brightness…Dewdrops on a spider’s web held whole rainbows inside them and a fence lizard’s tail shone blue as indigo glass.”
Laurel’s love scenes are tender and believable. “The Cove” is Rash’s sexiest book.
Walter’s feelings and history come out in the novel, but not his fantasies as much as they might if the novel had had space to explore them. We hear his music, but not his musician’s mind.
At 255 pages, “The Cove” is a crafted gem. It’s a book you could read again to savor the writing. Rash has found a subject that compellingly represents his vision—beauty shadowed by foreboding; and he’s made it symphonic.
The Cove by Ron Rash (HarperCollins: Ecco hardcover, Apr. 2012, 255 pages, $26.99).
SEE THE AUTHOR
Ron Rash’s 29-stop book tour for his new novel, “The Cove,” includes these local stops:
Fri., 7 p.m.
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St. Asheville (254-6734).
Sat., 2 p.m.
Blue Ridge Books, 152 S. Main St., Waynesville (456-6000).
Sun., April 15, 2 p.m.
Jackson County Library Community Room, Sylva (586-9499).
Thurs., May 24, 7 p.m.
Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg County Public Library, 151 N. Church St., Spartanburg.
Thurs. May 24, 12 noon
The Lazy Goat, Greenville, for “Book Your Lunch,” $55 ticket (864-675-0540).