Serena by Ron Rash
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“A kind of annihilation, was what Serena called their coupling, and though Pemberton would never have thought to describe it that way, he knew her words had named the thing exactly.”
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence play the power couple in the 2015 movie.
George Pemberton brought back a wife from Boston. More than a wife, more of a force of nature as dangerous as a witch and as pretty as an angel. He feels stronger with her by his side, and though never a man lacking in confidence, that self-assurance is further emboldened by the Machiavellian counsel of his new wife. Before going to Boston to marry Serena, Pemberton fathered a child on a young girl named Rachel, a worker in the timber camp. When he returns after basking in the glow of his new wife, he can’t understand why he ever found Rachel attractive. In a place where women age quickly, her youth was her banner of attraction, but now he has Serena.
Rachel had a boy, the spitting image of Pemberton.
Rachel pays the price of her dalliances with Pemberton, not just with having an illegitimate child which seems potentially punishment enough, but by the condescending judgment of the other “Christian” women in the camp. What was she to do, tell him no? The women refuse to speak with her or even sit with her at lunch as if the taint of her sin could pass to them.
”She realized that being starved for words was the same as being starved for food, because both left a hollow place inside you, a place you needed filled to make it through another day.”
It is really hard to like people sometimes.
On the other hand, it is very easy to like Rachel. If one zig or zag of life had went a different direction, most of those women spurning her could have found themselves in a similar circumstances or worse. Compassion is something we all need from time to time, and though some of our bad fortune may be left at our own doorstep, rarely is anything all our fault. Sometimes fate just shakes out a pair of snake eyes.
There is this moment where Rachel is out in the middle of nowhere, slightly astray, but temporarily free from the burden of anxiety. ”She looked at the stars and they brightened and dimmed in accord with her breathing, as if one hard puff might blow the whole lot of them out like candles.” So much of our life is spent just stumbling forward barely noticing what is in front of us, but because she stopped, even ever so briefly, and looked at the stars, Rachel brought the universe to the cusp of her lips. Maybe some of that was in the attraction Pemberton once felt for her.
The right pet for the lady that wants to be taken seriously.
Serena is almost mythological among the men of the timber camp. She rides around with an eagle perched on her arm. She sends the bird out to kill rattlesnakes to reduce the number of bitten workers. The men admire her, lust after her, and fear her. “He (George) suspected the workers thought of Serena as beyond gender, the same as they might some phenomenon of nature such as rain or lightning.” Men who cross Pemberton or even men who get in his way start having mishaps. The Pembertons become richer and more powerful. In the backwoods of North Carolina, they can get away with...well...anything.
One good man isn’t enough to stand up to them. It takes a community, but this is 1929 and everyone is more afraid of losing their job than they are at stopping wickedness especially when the devil and his handmaiden have the keys to the gold.
Pemberton has a loose moral code. Well it’s not really much of a code per say as a philosophy of life. It is more of a what’s best for Pemberton code, and any soft edges he might have once possessed have been turned jagged with the steady influence of Serena. From the beginning, she seduces him with her sexual assurance and her focused intelligence. He has never met anyone like her, and fortunately for most of humanity, there are few like Serena.
As they get away with the worst of crimes, it only encourages them to do more. Every villain or villainess needs a henchman. When Galloway loses a hand, he expects to be sent down the road to a life of poverty and despair until Serena offers to keep him on the payroll as long as he is willing to do whatever she needs done.
He is understandably grateful, but there is only so much a man should sell of his soul to keep his place on this earth, and certainly Galloway decides to sell more than what any man should.
Pemberton is kept more and more in the dark as Serena clears a path for him. The swath she clears is not unlike the surface of the North Carolina hills after they are done harvesting trees. ”The valley and the ridges resembled the skinned hide of some large animal.”
When Serena loses a child and learns she can’t have more, she is upset for now there is someone who has given Pemberton what she can’t. She turns her thoughts to the child and the mother. Rachel has to run with the specter of the one armed man haunting her at every turn. ”Briars grabbed her legs and each time there was an instant she thought Galloway had her.”
Will Pemberton finally do something? Or is even this beyond his control? Is he willing to sacrifice his only offspring on the altar of Serena? Is this one time when God deigns to throw a glance at the workings of man or in this case... one woman?
George, there are things you can live with and there are even things that YOU can’t live with.
Uriah Heep is always the first villain of fiction that comes to my mind when I think of a character that gave me the most chills, but Ron Rash’s creation, Serena Pemberton, certainly goes on the list. We are all born with a natural need for self-preservation. We have varying degrees of things we are willing to do to save ourselves. This can even be applied to less immediately dire concerns, like bettering our position in a financial or social way. There is something feral about people like Serena who perceive all threats or nuisances as equally threatening, whether it be a true rival or just a person who has become less useful. We’ve come to accept ruthlessness in a certain kind of man, but we still find it jarring when a woman is the one capable of being so merciless.
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