One of the joys of reviewing books is that you are sometimes sent something by a publisher that you would never normally read, but which you end up really enjoying. Ron Rash’s The Cove has been one of these books. I had never heard of the writer, and based on the title and cover art, I would have been pretty unlikely to have ever picked this up at a library or book shop. Yet when I come to actually write my review, I find I am struggling for words to do this book justice (something Rash himself has never had trouble with, I suspect).
In the last months of the First World War, the effects of the events in Europe have even reached as far as the small town of Mars Hill in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. In a shadowy mountain cove just outside of town is a poor smallholding, barely held together by siblings Hank and Laurel Sheldon. Hank has recently returned from France having lost his hand; while he was away, Laurel lost their father, leaving her to try and scratch a living off the land alone. No-one else lives in the cove as the locals still see it as a place cursed with ill luck – the native population wouldn’t live there and the first white settlers all died of smallpox. Laurel’s port wine birthmark is read by many as further proof of this curse. She is whispered to be a witch and largely shunned by superstitious locals.
Into this hard and lonely life steps Walter, a man Laurel finds collapsed in the cove one day after he has been attacked by a swarm of wasps. She helps him back to the cabin and nurses him back to health. As he recovers, he provides much needed help to Hank on the farm, and Laurel slowly begins to fall in love with him. Although mute and unable to write, Walter plays the flute with a skill that neither of the Sheldons has heard before, and soon he becomes part of their lives in ways they could never have imagined. However, the war is never that far away, and soon comes knocking on their door of the cursed cove in surprising and yet expectedly tragic ways.
Given that this is a novel rich in local atmosphere, it comes as no surprise to learn that Ron Rash is an author that has lived in Appalachia all his life, and sets all of his fictional writing there (this is his fifth novel, although he has also won the prestigious Frank O’Conner award for his short stories). Appalachia is a region that is, in American terms, old, poor, misunderstood and rich in folklore and dialect. Rash is clearly steeped in this regional culture, dropping language, belief and history into The Cove’s prose as easily as if he had lived there a hundred years ago and seen it all for himself. It makes for a very real world, although a glossary of terms would have been a helpful addition for non-American readers as many words were unfamiliar.
Rash’s use of language is a stand-out feature of this novel; it is taut, sparing and carefully measured in a way that made me feel that I was reading short story made large. Neither sibling is described in detail – we know little of their looks, nothing about their age and only the minimum necessary about their backgrounds to drive the plot, yet they remained vivid characters on the page. It is a poetic book, never over-written and free of the clutter that many writers produce in their fiction, leaving Rash looking like a master of less really being more. It is a powerful novel that progresses with a sense of looming inevitability that manages to never detract from the ending when you finally reach it.
This may have been the first Ron Rash book I have read, but I very much doubt that it will be the last.
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