Ron Rash has a sublime sense of place, atmospheric detail and colloquial manners. The Appalachian landscapes in his novels are vivid, rugged. Colors, smells, and sounds take on a sentient quality, and there's a brutal, timeless delicacy to his terrains. Moment to moment, you move from the crest of creation to the threat of destruction. His stories convey themselves through the power of domain. His latest is a testament to the most fertile aspects of his craft, which shimmer through an otherwise flawed and listless story.
A short, mysterious prologue introduces us to a forbidding, rural North Carolina cove in 1957, and is followed by the main story, which takes place toward the end of WW I on the same rough and haunted turf. Laurel Shelton, an ostracized young woman, believed to be a hexed witch that causes harm and doom to others, lives with her brother, Hank, a disabled soldier recently returned from battle. Hank is engaged to marry a woman whose father needs to be convinced that Hank isn't also possessed. Into their solitary existence comes a mute flautist, Walter, who changes the course of their lives.
The alchemic beauty of the story is largely communed through Rash's formidable powers of description. The cove area, where Laurel and Hank Shelton live, has a supernatural aura. It is evident that the cove's mystical power will impel events along a trenchant course of turmoil and danger. The tension mounts early, with subtle and bold implications of the cove's spectral qualities and the Shelton's cursed history, which are woven inextricably together.
However, there are structural and character-related problems that make this story fall short of the author's intentions. It is difficult to relate them all without giving spoilers, so I will confine them to a few examples. First, the characters are static stereotypes that don't developed beyond what you see on introduction. They are either good and heroic or bad and polluted, and you know on contact. A few, like Walter, have hidden natures that are revealed gradually, but they don't truly evolve.
Secondary characters--Hank's friends, for instance, are stock set pieces. Slidell (Hank's closest friend) and his moonshine distilling behaviors are derivative and prosaic. If you want to be captivated by moonshine madness, read Finn, which places you vividly into the depths of this culture. I got tired of scenes of sittin' on the porch drinking moonshine, or laying about drinking moonshine, or recovering from the effects of moonshine. It added nothing to the significance of story, and seemed more like filler. Moreover, Slidell had minimal dimension beyond the buddy sidekick.
The villain, recruitment officer Chancey Feith, was a thin membrane of a figure. His presence was a platform for Rash to telegraph the theme of ignorant discrimination and flag-waving patriotism. He was a formula jingoist character that we knew to despise, who had no depth beyond pettiness and nationalism (with an obvious wink to today's imperialism). He was a flat, predictable entity designed to manipulate the story in a deterministic direction.
The plot is simple, and for all the meandering that Rash precipitated, it could have been reduced to a short story format. The structure was wobbly; for instance, he built up an imaginary dream world for Laurel to imbibe, where she insisted on knowing and recreating a historical place (that was central to the plot), leading the reader on a launched journey that demanded some kind of realization or corollary. However, Rash just dumped it with a reductive denouement.
As a matter of fact, several mobilized events and ideas were bluntly dispatched in this manner. He rushed the important events, especially as the climax drew nearer. Directions drifted and dropped and the story was sidetracked with spurious shifts, as Rash let the grains of some incipient ideas vanish with an inchoate shrug. It appeared as if he was trying to write two stories, and then eliminated one without properly trimming and removing surplus. Some of the context just shuffled into discarded notions. The myth of the cove was ultimately a tepid trickle, as its meaning wasn't revelatory or fulfilling.
At the end of the day, this is a mixed bag. The book is worth reading simply for the sense of place and time, providing an intimate feeling of color and history through geography and atmosphere. Rash is an author with a subtle and transcendent gift for transporting the reader to the Appalachian wilderness. However, once you get there, you're stuck in a stagnant, lackluster zone.