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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