Book of the week : The Cove - Ron Rash

Ron Rash belongs to a tradition of American writers from Steinbeck to Springsteen who excel in chronicling the stories of the forgotten poor, those whose lives are a constant struggle for survival against nature and circumstance. His latest offering, The Cove, is set in rural North Carolina during the final year of World War I, and beautifully captures the narrow-mindedness and suspicion that characterises both the place and time

In The Cove, Ron Rash transports us to a place filled with darkness and sadness, crippled by prejudice, superstition and the burdens of a world in the grips of World War I. Amidst all this we meet Laurel Shelton, who, like the area’s fabled Carolina parakeet, shines with such kindness and beauty that we are immediately enraptured and determined to know her fate. Will she overcome the oppressive history of this place many consider cursed?

Laurel’s entire life has been spent in the shadow of the cliffs that surround her and her brother’s farm, a valley thought to be cursed and a place that has dealt her family nothing but bad fortune

Born with a port wine stain upon her shoulders, she is shunned as a witch by the local townspeople and is convinced she is destined to spend her life alone, trapped in the darkness of the valley. It’s hard to imagine that a world like this really existed as we read of women who not only cross the street to avoid her but believe that ‘her father’s heart gave out after rocking Laurel with her birthmark touching his chest’ and that ‘her mother’s poisoned limb had turned the colour of Laurel’s stained skin’. However, this is what she is forced to endure and she yearns to escape

The return of her brother Hank from war, after she has survived several gruelling years alone in their isolated cabin in the cove, should have been a relief and the beginning of happier times for Laurel, but it comes with complications and a confirmation that the people of Mars Hill will never move past their superstitious beliefs

While washing at the creek near the cabin, Laurel hears beautiful music and follows it to discover its source is not a Carolina parakeet, as she first thought, but a man.  Meet Walter, a German musician marooned in the US when the luxury liner he was working on was stuck in new York. Walter’s escaped from an internment camp and headed for the hills. To top it all off, he’s mute

Her brother Hank takes him on as a farmhand and slowly he becomes part of Laurel’s life and part of life in the cove. For the first time Laurel finds her world coloured by beauty and joy. and a world of new possibility opens up and with it, a whole new world of prejudice and peril

Laurel, Hank and Walter engage in a unique ensemble supported by a host of  memorable characters including the bizarre Sergeant Chauncey Feith, loyal  Slidell, Boyce and even Laurel’s old school teacher, Ms Calicut. Their little  dance grows into a greater drama as Rash hypnotises us with the slow revelation  of secrets via a choir of local dialects and lyrical language. When events  accelerate out of control towards a scorpion-sting finish you’re left reeling in the way that only a thoroughly hooked reader can be

Rash writes with brutal honesty about the difficulty of a life spent in constant battle with the land and the seasons, the petty cruelties we inflict upon each other and the injustices of a seemingly indifferent fate. But he also      celebrates the goodness of people, the small kindnesses that sustain us, and the moments of pleasure in the natural world; the flash of colour from a bird’s wings, the fragrance of a flower, or warmth of sun-baked stone, and his novels leave long-lasting echoes in the imagination

The Cove is a wonderfully textured story. The writing is evocative, emotional and controlled. It’s a story that will appeal to both male and female readers and will echo in your mind long after you’ve finished it

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March 26, 2012

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