THE COVE. By Ron Rash. Ecco. 255 pages. $26.
The title cove of South Carolina native Ron Rash’s new novel is a cheerless, cursed place, a “shadowland” haunted by wandering “ghosts and fetches.”
Cherokees always stayed away from the cove, and the first white settlers there died of smallpox.
The chestnut trees are blighted. The people perish in ordinary and spectacular ways.
Rash opens “The Cove” with a prologue set decades after 1918, the year when the rest of the action takes place. In the prologue, a TVA engineer arrives at the Blue Ridge Mountain cove, his mission to build a dam that will submerge the entire area. Scoping out the terrain, he uncovers the remains of one of the cove’s spectacular deaths, which is revealed to him in an unforgettably spooky way.
Rash’s five-part plot works out the story of this body and how it came to be concealed for years.
After the prologue, the novel moves to the Appalachian homefront during World War I and centers on one of the cove’s broken families.
Laurel and Hank Shelton are a brother and sister who seem to embody the cove’s bad luck. Hank’s lucky enough to have survived the war, but he came home minus an arm. Her days pass slowly and quietly, often without seeing another living soul.
It’s a spellbound situation and one that Rash breaks with a fairy tale plot turn. One day, Laurel hears a song “so pure no breath need carry it into the world.” Chasing the song to its source, she finds a strange man propped against a tree, playing the flute. Who is he? The man carries a note saying that his name is Walter, he’s bound for New York and he’s mute.
Laurel has been “waiting for her life to begin,” and so it does. Rash maintains a fine balance between beauty and sorrow in “The Cove.”
There may be, as Laurel says, a “lavish of aloneness,” but there’s also, almost miraculously, love. Through love, Laurel and Walter enter into a permanent state of grace; the cove itself is transfigured by their pure emotion.
The texture and richness of Rash’s language converts a small, isolated world into a totality. Never overtly showy, his words shape precisely the quiet scenes and actions that will be lost when the larger world invades the cove: Around the leisurely curve of a river, “the dark water gurgled, slapping softly against the smallest obstructions.” On the same river, “bright yellow mayflies hatched where the current slowed, blooming on the surface, struggling a few moments, then aloft.”
Who will take the time to notice such offhand beauty when tragedy comes to the cove? Like the mayflies that spark for their moment, Rash’s cove dwellers have their glorious hour before fate stages a take-down.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes, an English instructor at the College of Charleston