The Cove
by Ron Rash (2012)
Ecco (2012)
255 pp

Though I often get emails inviting me to participate in blog tours (where a bunch of bloggers schedule a succession of reviews of an author’s new book), I’ve never done one until today. I just couldn’t give up a chance to read and review Ron Rash’s The Cove because, after a recent taste of what Rash can write (my brief thoughts on his short story “The Trusty” here), I really want to get to know this regionalist author better (click here to read a short piece he wrote about regionalism’s power to evoke the universal).

The cove of this story is situated in North Carolina. In the novel’s brief prologue, which takes place in the late-1940s, a TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) worker has arrived at the town of Mars Hill. Used to being despised (in part because of his Kansas accent), the government worker is a bit taken back when the residents of Mars Hill show no signs of resistance when he says he’s come to create a new lake that will bury the old cove. “You can’t bury that cove deep enough for me, an older man named Parton said, and those sharing the store bench with him nodded in agreement.” The only real push-back he has received is from a college professor who thinks the cove may be the last habitat for the Carolina Parakeet. The man proceeds to check out the cove itself, feeling “how little this place would change once underwater. Already dark and silent.” A slightly misleading tone is set when he finds a well, dips the bucket deep to the water, and pulls out a human skull.

The remainder of the novel takes us back to the last year of World War I. Laurel and Hank Shelton are brother and sister. Their parents moved to the cove but have since died, seeming to confirm what people have thought all along: the cove is a cursed place. “The Cherokee had stayed away from the cove, and the first white family to settle here had all died of smallpox.” Hank has recently returned home from the war with only one hand. Their only help comes from an 81-year-old man named Slidell. We find out that “[e]ven Preacher Goins, who’d bibled her mother’s funeral, made sure he left before dark. He hadn’t taken Laurel’s hand or hugged her and Laurel knew the why of that too.” So Laurel, shunned because people think the cove has taken her over and that she’s a witch (though she’s never done anything to harm anyone), lives an incredibly lonely life with little prospect of happiness. She doesn’t even know what happiness would feel like.

One day, Laurel thinks she hears a Carolina Parakeet singing. She investigates and, to her surprise, she finds a strange man playing a silver flute. She spies on him for a few days until she finds him sick, finally taking him to her cabin and telling Hank about the stranger. I don’t think I need to elaborate on any of the details here; it is sufficient to say that this plays out much like we might expect: both Hank and Laurel overcome any early misgivings they have about the stranger, whose name, they find out, is Walter. Walter cannot talk, but he shows he’s a hard worker. There is no reason to distrust this musician whose simply trying to find his way back to New York.

Knowing she’s being a bit forward and probably very presumptuous, Laurel allows her thoughts to wander. Perhaps Walter’s arrival is the beginning of a lifetime of happiness. Hank thinks so too. At least, they both hope, and Hank starts doing what he can to give them some alone time:

It seemed a safe time, especially since she’d been drinking the tonic. There’d be some women who’d hope they weren’t fallow. They’d think getting with child would snare Walter into staying, but Laurel knew of men who’d seeded a chap and then run off. They’d left behind their kin and work and sometimes even farms, lots more than what Walter would leave.

One of the strengths of The Cove is the internal life of Laurel. Rash takes us to her tragic schooldays, where she lost her virginity to a boy trying to win a bet, and deep into her mind where she constantly has to reassure herself that what she sees is real — that she herself is real. Many pages are devoted to her performing chores while we follow her thoughts as they meander through switchbacks about what she wants or doesn’t want. For me one of the weaknesses of The Cove is that when it ventures out of Laurel’s thoughts it actually seems less real.

For example, another character whose thoughts we follow is Chauncey Feith, the 26-year-old rich boy who didn’t go to war. We know his type well: he’s an insecure coward who tries to cover his deficiencies up by bullying others, gathering around him as many younger disciples as he can (only a few). Rash depicts the embarrassing thoughts of Chauncey incredibly well, but his character — as familiar as he may be to us from real life — comes across as a plot device. A villain for the sake of having a villain who can threaten the growing happiness in the cove.

Another thing that seemed a bit unreal: the growing happiness in the cove. It’s one thing to have Laurel imagining such hopelessly romantic thoughts as this: “This is how it’ll be, Laurel though, hours and hours I won’t say much and he won’t say anything, but he can show me with his eyes and touches that he loves me.” It’s another to have that be pretty much exactly what happens. Consequently, the story becomes much more about a rather simplistic plot than about the internal lives of these characters.

But let me end with another thing that felt real: the loneliness. Rash’s cove is uncomfortably lightless. Though we don’t feel threatened there, we do feel how alone these characters are, how much their local society has pushed them away as an outlet to their meanness which they mask by superstition. As much as we might begin to feel the book follows an uninteresting and conventional line when things begin to work out for Laurel and Walter, we actually do want them to be happy.

Still, in the end I was disappointed that even the threat to their happiness was predictably plotted. So as much as I enjoyed the more lonely moments in the cove (Rash reall is an excellent writer of atmosphere), I didn’t particularly enjoy the book. Time for me to seek out Rash’s back catalog, which I have reason to suspect will be more rewarding and to my tastes.

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By |2016-07-14T17:38:33+00:00May 1st, 2012|Categories: Book Reviews, Ron Rash|Tags: , |9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Shelley May 1, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Literature does loneliness even better than film.

  2. Trevor May 1, 2012 at 11:36 am

    I’d probably agree with you, Shelley. Somehow on page loneliness can really echo. I do like a good lonely film, though, I’m thinking right now of Paris, Texas, and I’d like to think of some others . . .

  3. nathan May 1, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Great comments on Rash’s style and the interior worlds he creates in this book.

    I had a little different take on a few points. When you say, “the story becomes much more about a rather simplistic plot than about the internal lives of these characters,” I think of the book’s closing paragraphs, which really shift the emphasis to Walter who has finally learned what suffering is from his time in the cove. In the end he’s the only one who’s changed and it’s his internal life that comes into relief. His life will continue beyond this dark place.

    I also see Chauncey less as the villain than the cove is. He, too, is ultimately consumed by this place, and his demise is wonderfully set up in the chilling prologue. The villain is place, which lines up with your points about regionalism in the intro. If Chauncey and his actions are obvious, it’s partly because of the local values he’s trying to live up to. That’s why he leaves the big homecoming celebration as a reluctant vigilante. He’s much rather just give a speech and hates what this place has turned him into all the way until the end.

    But I’m also a fan of Rash and biased. The World Made Straight was my favorite of his novels.

  4. Trevor May 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Nathan. I like what you say about place being the villain, because certainly the superstitions built up in this region cause the demise of many of the characters. That said . . . I still think Chauncey is, whether he is driven by some cultural determinism or not, pretty one-dimensional.

    The truth is I started becoming disappointed in the book fairly early on. One complaint, that I didn’t want to bring up in the review for fear of spoilers, is that one can figure out the entire novel at the beginning since the books Rash read as research (one about The Vaterland and one about the German invasion of North Carolina (I don’t have the book with me to get more specific)) are placed before the text. It took little time to figure out who Walter was and what he was doing in the cove once 1 and 1 were put together. Add to that Chauncey’s personality, and it’s easy to summarize the rest of the book, even though it is made much better through Rash’s prose.

    That’s not to say I knew who would die or exactly how (or if) Walter would emerge at the end (I liked the last sentence but felt it was a bit too little a bit too late), but most of the book travelled the anticipated course. As I my thoughts on the plot were consistently confirmed, I got more and more disappointed. I felt the plot crushed the other thing placed before the text, the epigraph from John Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes” which refers to becoming awake to sleep. That comes up often as Laurel tries to make dreams and even real events more concrete for fear they’ll drift away, but I didn’t feel it was much more than that.

    I’d appreciate anyone’s thoughts on that, in fact, as I hope I just missed something.

    I do plan to go back to Rash’s prior work and continue to follow what he does next. I have both Serena and Burning Bright, and not liking The Cove (in fact, finding much to admire notwithstanding) didn’t make me less excited to read them.

  5. techeditor May 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    I’m so surprised that you were not pleased with this book. Not that I’ve read it, myself, but yours is the only review I’ve read with anything but raves in it.

    I’m anxious to see if I agree with you.

  6. Trevor May 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I haven’t looked at many other reviews yet, techeditor, but I did notice that Ron Charles of The Washington Post didn’t like it. He even ends his review this way:

    If you want an imperiled young woman looking for love in these mountains, walk over to Nightwoods, Charles Frazier’s tense little novel from last year.

    I do note that Charles’ reasons for not liking The Cove are different from mine. Where he liked the rundown to the last page and didn’t like the middle part of the book, I felt almost the opposite — almost. On the other hand, we see the predictability the same:

    I love atmosphere — I’m as fond of good atmosphere as Al Gore — but this big valley needs more to fill it up than proof that Chauncey is arrogant and Laurel is sweet. We can see the sergeant’s eventual confrontation with Laurel’s mute lover from three hollows away.

    Click here for the full review.

    When you do read it, techeditor, please come back and let us know how it struck you.

  7. techeditor May 2, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Trevor, you say “When you do read it, techeditor, please come back and let us know how it struck you.”

    As I was reading your response, I planned to tell you that I wish I had already read this book so I could discuss it with you. I haven’t given up on winning it yet; I have so many books to read, I avoid spending money on more.

    While I won’t predict that I, too, will see problems with this book, I most often do. As a matter of fact, I seldom don’t. I can think of only one book I didn’t have a problem with. Some of them are still good enough to recommend, though.

    I don’t see Ron Rash responding to comments. I wish he would.

  8. Trevor May 2, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Well now you’ve got us all curious: what is the one book you didn’t have any problem with?

  9. Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours May 4, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    I’m sorry this one didn’t turn out to be as good as you’d hoped, but I’m glad that you’ll be checking out the author’s backlist.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

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