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the cove

7 december 2015

The Cove, Ron Rash's 2012 historical novel, is a sharp, short, elemental book, a tragedy set in a backwater that finds itself unable to avoid geopolitics. It's generically a noir and it presents a universal human story, but it also evokes a specific locale and a definite time – one that unfortunately serves as allegory for our own, 100 years later.

Laurel and her brother Hank are residents of the title cove, an otherwise depopulated, eerie valley in the hills of North Carolina, in the year 1918. Laurel has a prominent birthmark that leads people in town to think she's a witch. Hank has lost a hand in combat in France. They're making dogged and uneven progress toward happiness despite it all. Hank's become engaged to a local woman and has dreams of leaving the cove that he doesn't immediately share with Laurel. When a drifter named Walter shows up, unable to speak but with a spellbinding talent for the flute, it looks like Hank and Laurel have found the catalyst for permanent improvement in their lives.

Of course you know this can't last, and not even because the novel starts with a frame story, set 35 years later, in which a TVA official finds the cove farmstead abandoned, with a human skull at the bottom of the well. Doom hangs over every step that Hank and Laurel and Walter take. But just because we know their happiness will be ephemeral, what happiness they achieve proves all the more poignant.

Rash evokes the landscapes and communities of the Appalachians with his usual skill. He also conveys a rich and complicated historical background quite deftly, without a lot of clunky exposition. Among his themes are xenophobia, jingoism, and disability, but they are themes of 1918 every bit as much as themes of 2012, and they don't seem forced.

I initially picked up The Cove in the audio version narrated by Merritt Hicks. Hicks has a good, even reading voice, but I was put off before long by her rendering of dialogue. There's a kind of all-purpose stage-Southern dialect that always sounds wrong, as if it were an extraction of common markers from various local accents that ends up resembling none of them, and Hicks uses it here. That was a pity, because I liked her narrating voice quite a lot and would have been happy to hear her rendition of the characters in her own accent.

Eventually I finished the novel in the Kindle edition, which apparently (like the paperback and I presume Hicks's audio version) is revised from the hardcover. Rash says that (in Robert Frost's words) he revised the novel to focus "on grief not grievances." I haven't read the hardcover version but I can surmise that the focus also shifts somewhat from rhetoric to affect, and I imagine this was a wise choice.

Rash, Ron. The Cove. 2012. Revised. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. Epub Edition.