Ron Rash’s new novel is set in the most American of settings: Appalachia. It employs the rustic prose register of the peculiarly American tradition of the Bible Belt. This North-Carolina, World-War-I period piece of doomed love is, at its core, an attempt to write a Thomas Hardy novel with an added layer of war drama. Mordant descriptions of the rural landscape, characters whose grim lives are briefly lit up by the arrival of enigmatic strangers, and the persistence and futility of hope—these are the hallmarks of Hardy’s great novels, and these compelling aspects are all present in “The Cove.” Yet while Hardy’s deterministic tragedies are genuinely moving, “The Cove,” despite some fine moments, is let down by its plodding narrative, unconvincing characters, and inconsistent writing. It ultimately descends into melodrama and clumsy political allegory.
Laurel Shelton, the novel’s female protagonist and the inhabitant of the eponymous cove, is a character with an obvious precedent—Eustacia Vye, the heroine of Hardy’s “The Return of the Native.” Like Eustacia, Laurel is a mysterious, dark-haired beauty who lives in a secluded place with a single male relative—her brother Hank, maimed in a French battlefield—and is suspected by the petty, gossiping residents of the neighboring town to be a witch. It is early 1918, and Laurel is “waiting for her life to begin.” The cove that she and her brother Hank inhabit is widely regarded as cursed, and she herself is scarred by an ugly birthmark that whispering voices in the town characterize as a sign of the devil. She is orphaned and ostracized, and the arrival of a stranger—just like “Native”—seemingly emancipates Laurel from this bored loneliness.
Laurel’s stranger is Walter—allegedly a New Yorker, struck mute by a childhood disease, and the masterful player of a beautiful silver flute. She meets him by saving his life after he is stung by wasps. Only days later, they are in love, but without due process: their romance does not develop; it merely happens. A romance involving a character incapable of speech ought to be fertile ground, but in Rash’s hands it is weak and unconvincing—and, most surprisingly, characterized by pages of cringe-inducing dialogue. An especially mawkish example is Laurel’s injunction that Walter should not bring his flute with him when they move to New York, for they shall already have “enough prettiness” in their lives.
After a few days of unmitigated happiness, Laurel learns a secret that ought to transform her understanding of Walter’s character. This secret is clearly intended to be a momentous plot twist, but its impact is simultaneously crippled both by the fact that, far from being a twist, it is entirely predictable, and by Laurel’s reaction to her realization. Walter’s unmasking reveals that he has propagated a massive deceit on Laurel. Yet she is blissfully unconcerned, and their romance continues. This absurd set of events insults the intelligence of the reader. Laurel’s stunned realization of a fact painfully obvious from chapters before devalues any claim she might have had to be a compelling and credible character.
The counterpoint to Laurel’s and Walter’s romance is the activity of Chauncey Feith, an unscrupulous, cowardly, and ambitious young man who conceals his own unwillingness to enlist in World War I by serving as a zealous Army recruiter. Feith is a pantomime villain, entirely without remorse or kindness. In a meandering set of passages, he persecutes a local professor simply for speaking German. Despite the inordinate number of pages dedicated to him, Feith is less character than plot device. He plays a crucial role in the novel’s denouement, and also serves to illustrate Rash’s evident concerns with the 21st century politics of warmongering and the war on terror. “We are arresting them all,” Feith declares at one point. “What’s the truth and what ain’t we can sort out later.” His cavalier attitude to justice mimics modern rhetoric used to justify, for instance, the prison camp on Guantanamo Bay.
Rash was a poet before he was a novelist, and at its best, his prose resonates with the lyrical tone of Appalachia. A particularly fine example is his description of Feith’s worries: “The coming day’s responsibilities were like cockleburs prickling away sleep.” At other times, however, the prose overreaches, particularly in Rash’s peculiar fondness for using nouns as verbs. Thus the priest who officiates Laurel’s mother’s funeral is said to have “bibled her mother’s funeral,”and Laurel argues that teaching Walter how to read and write “might confidence him more.” The dialogue’s approximation of early 20th century Appalachian speech is also wildly uneven; it reaches a particular low when Laurel declares her love by telling Walter: “I have feelings for you, heart feelings,” phrasing that appears both clumsy and anachronistic.
The novel’s fatal weaknesses are in its plot and narrative construction. Rash spends chapter after chapter sketching the geographical setting, and in particular the dark atmosphere of the cove, as well as a series of flashbacks to Laurel’s days with her favorite schoolteacher. These vignettes are not merely irrelevant; they are also soporific. This abundance of irrelevant detail, however beautifully written, stands in marked contrast to the breezy manner in which Rash narrates the key events, such as Laurel and Walter’s romance or the horrific tragedy that ends the book. His tendency to spend much more time on matters of minor narrative relevance than those that have the potential to grip the reader renders the tragedy more farcical than moving. Feith’s final crime, which is devoid of context and utterly without explanation, is ultimately a joke, rather than a powerful tragic ending. The contrast with Hardy, whom Rash seeks to emulate in terms of setting, theme, and mood, is unflattering. “The Cove” is a deeply felt tribute to its North Carolina setting, but fails both as a romance and as a World War I thriller.
—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at email@example.com.