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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

January 23, 2013

Book Review: The Cove



A number of books made their way into print during the holiday crunch. None were so beautifully melancholic as Ron Rash's The Cove (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: November 6, 2012; Cost: $14.99). From page one, the work is imbued with a tangible sense of sadness that amplifies the several, dark themes of the novel, ranging from xenophobia and isolation, to the question of unrequited love and the elusiveness of joy. When these elements are coupled with Rash's masterful storytelling, the work is as beautifully tragic as it is beautifully written.

The tale follows the lives of Laurel and Hank Shelton, a recently orphaned set of siblings in their early 20s, trying to eek out an existence in the hollow of a foreboding, granite outlet known as the cove. Set during the waning months of World War I, much of the Mars Hill community has struggled to cope with the rising costs of war, including Hank Shelton, whose left arm remained somewhere in France as a result.

Upon Hank's return, the humdrum of rebuilding the Sheltons' farm is shaken when a mute transient named Walter happens upon the seclusion of the cove. The man proves an able worker, quickly earning the trust of Laurel and eventually Hank, although his past remains a mystery. For Laurel the chance encounter is particularly intriguing, since Walter is both an eligible bachelor and ignorant of the local lore surrounding her family, the cove and a peculiar birthmark on her leg. For Hank, Walter's arrival is a golden opportunity to finish the necessary repairs on the farm and to leave his sister in in the care of a husband who can provide a good life for her.

Despite being cut from the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, love blooms amidst the craggy environs of the cove, perhaps as it inevitably should. Rash paints the relationship between Laurel and Walter as one of awkward innocence, rather than one of heated attraction but the approach works, giving an air of realism and honesty to the coupling. After all, most relationships are awkward at first. Only the best ones progress to being awkward in bed.

Being a tragedy, I am reluctant to divulge much more of the plot for fear of giving away some of the novel's twists and the ending. But one theme that bears some discussion is the relationship between an individual's landscape and their perception of reality. Rash argues that the area in which a person is reared can have tremendous ramifications for how a person perceives their lot in life. Or as he puts it, "landscape is destiny."

On the one hand, the connection between peoples and their lands is nothing new. Cultures on every habitable part of the world have fought and died over this very concept. But Rash takes this idea and localizes it to create one of the most unique motifs in literatures - the suggestions that the landscapes surrounding us can permanently alter, for better or worse, how we perceive life itself.

Naturally, I doubt the application of Rash's theory, but in the novel the fiction works quite well. For the Sheltons, the gloomy depths of the cove mark the beginning of a mournful provenance that runs throughout the novel. As a reader, this creates a perversely compelling dichotomy - over and over again I hoped for the best, while the characters seemed only to hope for not the worst.

Managing such low character expectations in a novel would be difficult were it not for the role of the cove itself in dashing so many hopes for both Laurel and Hank. The granite cliff creating the cove is a constant presence in the novel, lurking behind whatever joy that manages to seep into its shadows, ready to snuff out any mirth like a candle in the winter's air. Yet, the landmark is idle, no more a character in the novel than the Great War. The hope that keeps one turning, page after page is that the characters can make an escape from such a dreary place.

Laurel Shelton describes long suffering as follows:
Waiting for her life to begin. Still waiting a year after her father's death. But now she felt something was about to happen, maybe already had happened, a beginning this stranger might be apart of. p.47
Here, the cove serves the role as a barrier to time for Laurel, placing her life on hold, preventing her from embracing any other reality beside the doldrums of its confines.

Finally, what makes Rash's novel particularly compelling is that he provides glimpses of the happiness that might have been, perhaps in a different place, a different era, under different circumstances. Readers have little doubt that the novel is a tragedy going in, but Rash does a powerful job of lulling readers into meditative sense of security before the bell tolls.

As love finds Walter and Laurel, she steps outside the cabin to reflect:
This was something rarer. Happiness, Laurel thought, that must be what this is. She picked up the kindling and went inside. She and Walter and Hank stayed by the hearth past mid-night, and no one spoke and no one seemed to want to, as if a single utterance might break some benevolent spell that had been cast over the cabin. p.135
For just a moment, it's easy to forget that further tragedy awaits the trio inside the cabin. It's easy to forget the work that went into the farm repairs in the preceding chapters, the circumstances which brought Walter to the cove, and the xenophobia against German-Americans running rampant in the nearby town.

In fiction as in life, it's easy to sit by the hearth and enjoy the warmth. Of course, this happiness cannot last long in either realm. Life is simply too messy, too brutish, and too short, to borrow a bit from Hobbes. In Rash's world, we are reminded how these quiet moments can be an opiate for the cold of the present.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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