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Historical Novels

A juggernaut unleashed

By Anna Mundow
January 11, 2009
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SERENA
By Ron Rash
Ecco, 371 pp., $24.95

A CHRISTMAS GRACE
By Anne Perry
Ballantine, 210 pp., $18

MY LIFE AT FIRST TRY
By Mark Budman
Counterpoint, 218 pp., $24

Economic depression, financial meltdown, political corruption, corporate greed, and criminality. History shows us that we have been here before and learned little. Historical fiction goes further, inviting us to observe how characters behave under such circumstances, a spectacle that is rarely uplifting. Depression-era novels in particular tend to specialize in tragic heroes, long-lived villains, and a comeuppance that invariably arrives late if at all.

Ron Rash combines all of these elements and many more to great and often shocking effect in his captivating new novel, "Serena." The first jolt arrives in the first paragraph. "When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains . . . among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton's child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton's heart." Within minutes, however, Pemberton's knife has "opened a thin smile across the man's stomach." The novel's mythic tone is set, and from then on this story of untrammeled greed never flags.

George Pemberton, co-owner of the Boston Lumber Company, has returned to North Carolina in 1929 with his new wife, Serena, who is all appetite and cunning. "We've not seen the like of her in these hills before," a Pemberton logger observes. Fortunately for the hills in question, he is right. This ruthless superwoman can ride, shoot, train her pet eagle to kill snakes and her pet husband to kill - well, never mind - while overseeing the rape of the land and the appalling deaths of disposable workers. As another logger puts it, "There's men falling dead near about fast as the trees." To expand the Pemberton empire, Serena needs only to produce a legitimate heir (while disposing of the illegitimate one) and resist the federal government's extension of a national park into her territory.

Rash's descriptions of the land, of logging, hunting, and backwoods life are superb. His lyrical yet restrained style powerfully evokes not only the stillness and beauty of this place but also the violence, deliberate or casual, that the Pemberton juggernaut inflicts on any impediment or rival. Only the county's courageous sheriff and young Rachel Harmon, mother to Pemberton's illegitimate son (and the novel's Tess d'Urberville to Serena's Lady Macbeth), seem likely to prevail against the Pembertons. But

will they? The outcome, like the

novel itself, is as tough as it is elegant.

The natural world, unmolested in this case, inspires some of the finest passages in Anne Perry's latest novel, "A Christmas Grace." A storm, for example, fills the sky "with roiling clouds so low they closed in as if to settle on the earth," while lightning throws "forks like stab wounds from heaven to the sea." In an isolated village on the west coast of Ireland in 1895, human violence has also left its mark, although how and why are a mystery to Emily Radley, a young Englishwoman who is visiting her dying aunt but who soon realizes that something is afoot. The villagers are haunted by the suspicion that a man who washed ashore during a gale years before may have been subsequently murdered. Emily learns this when another man is washed ashore and is taken into her aunt's house, causing the locals great unease.

Perry's eye for the Connemara landscape is keen, and the insular world she conjures up is vivid and convincing. It is difficult, however, not to see the distorted shadow of the Irish playwright J. M. Synge looming, particularly in the colorful language of the peasants, as Emily might call them. Their quaint behavior makes her realize that "all her life she had thought of being English as a blessing, like being clever or beautiful, a grace that should be honored, but never questioned." That assumption is not so much undermined, however, as enhanced by the grace of Christmas, of truth-telling and reconciliation that this sensible English visitor bestows. By then, the novel needs another storm to clear the air of noxious sentimentality.

Redemption is more elusive - and sentimentality blessedly absent - in "My Life at First Try," Mark Budman's wry novel based on his childhood and youth in the USSR. "Stalin sent my grandparents here to chop wood," little Alex explains, "and my parents volunteered to live with them. That's how we got here." In 1957, when Alex is 7, he sees a group of foreign tourists who are visiting his town and notices that "they stood so straight and laughed loudly like kids, as if no one was watching them." From that moment on, he wants "to be a foreigner." Budman's description of his attempt to become an even more exotic specimen - himself - in the USSR and later in the United States, may be more memoir than fiction, but the novel's exuberance demolishes such boundaries.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at ama1668@ hotmail.com.

SERENA By Ron Rash

Ecco, 371 pp., $24.95

A CHRISTMAS GRACE By Anne Perry

Ballantine, 210 pp., $18

MY LIFE AT FIRST TRY By Mark Budman

Counterpoint, 218 pp., $24

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