Serena by Ron Rash has the character everyone loves to hate. Serena is ruthless, evil, and brilliant.
Serena marries George Pemberton in 1929 in Boston, and it only takes them a couple of months before they travel to North Carolina where they will together run a timber company George owns. When they arrive at the camp, Serena picks out a man who doesn’t have much respect for her and challenges him to a contest: whoever can total board feet of a particular tree would pay the other two weeks wages. When Serena wins, she and George decide that once this man has worked his two weeks off (without wages), he’ll be fired. Heartless doesn’t even begin to describe Serena.
It is with this cunning and ruthlessness that Serena and George run their timber company. Shortly after Serena’s arrival, she buys a hawk and trains it to hunt snakes, lending a mythical quality to the rumors that already ran rampant through the camp about her.
When Serena miscarries her first child and is unable to bear more children, she sets out to kill the one woman with whom George had fathered a child, a woman who George had had an affair with before he married Serena.
The book alternates from following George and Serena to following Rachel Harmon (the woman who bore George’s child), and while the voice is in third person, the reader is never given insight into Serena. Any insight into Serena is doled out second-hand, through George, the timber workers, or Rachel. I wished that Serena’s character could have been fleshed out a little more, perhaps by having her as the narrator or by allowing a more omniscient view.
Much is lost to the reader in the choice of narration. While a large part of the story is touted on the book’s jacket flap as being Serena hunting down Rachel, all the reader knows is that Serena is hunting Rachel, but we never get a look into her twisted mind, leaving us to guess at Serena’s motivations and feelings.
While I wished the narration had been different, I really enjoyed the story. You wonder how far Serena will go to advance her business intentions, and by the end of the book you realize that Serena will not let anyone or anything stand in her way.
********(added in after review was written) When I was having lunch with a friend, he told me about a short story he read that showed the characters in a way that an artist will show an image by using negative space. That is what the author does here: we see Serena through the eyes of others, thereby leaving us a picture of the main character by seeing what those around her think. I like this idea in theory, though Serena’s husband never sees Serena as she really is, partly because he is very much like her, so he becomes somewhat of an unreliable narrator.************(end added inspiration)
At the end of the book, the author says the story is based on a a real Serena Pemberton, a timber baronness, who was murdered with a knife when she was old, and the guard to her house says he saw her try to pull the knife from her chest and when he found her, she was still standing but she was very much dead. People who knew her didn’t doubt the veracity of the guard’s account. This woman was so headstrong and determined that she wouldn’t even lay down to die. How is this a story you wouldn’t want to read about?
Rating: 89 out of 100
Unfortunately, Ron Rash doesn’t have his own website, but you can find out more about Ron Rash on HarperCollins.