20 January, 2022

The Cove
Ron Rash
Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-180419-9

The one thing Laurel Shelton is most afraid of is the one thing she has lived with her whole life – loneliness. Set in the mountains of North Carolina during World War I, Rash’s latest novel, The Cove, finds Laurel living with her brother Hank in an isolated cabin nestled in the gloom of a dark and ominous valley. Though Laurel herself shudders in the shadows of her surroundings and dreams of a day she can escape such a curse, she also finds beauty in the cove’s brooks and waterfalls, the birdsong, and the warmth of the sun on a granite outcropping. Local townsfolk fear the cove and shun Laurel, thinking her a witch, in part due to a conspicuously large birthmark on her chest. She grew up with few friends, her parents had died early deaths, and Hank fought in France the previous year. At times, Laurel feels so alone, she doubts her own existence.

Dead and still in the world was worse than dead and in the ground. That kind of dead at least gave you the hope of heaven.

One day, Laurel discovers a stranger in her woods. He wears tattered clothes and plays the sweetest melodies on a silver flute. She hides from him, but the following day, she finds him incapacitated by wasp stings. Laurel takes him home, tends his wounds, feeds him, and gives him her father’s old clothes. The man cannot speak, read, or write, and thus Laurel and her brother know little about the musician, only that his name is Walter and he’s destined for New York City. He stays on awhile after he recovers and helps Hank with the farm work. He and Laurel fall in love. Soon Laurel suspects Walter harbors dangerous secrets. But she has found happiness and companionship for the first time in her life. Dare she confront Walter with her suspicions?

Meanwhile, Hun-hating Chauncey Feith, the town’s insecure and spineless army recruiter, plans an event that inadvertently destroys the peace and joy Laurel has found in her remote hideaway. In his prologue, Rash introduces a mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the very last pages. The setting symbolizes the bleakness of Laurel’s life prior to meeting Walter and the chapters abound in metaphors of fear and death.

Laurel followed the path through dead chestnuts whose peeling bark revealed wood the color of bone. Cleared four hundred dollars on the deal and we’ll be able to live off the chestnuts alone, her father bragged when he bought the land, but red dots sinister as those on black widows had already appeared on the tree trunks.

The Cove is beautifully written with poetic narrative. Highly recommended.

Award-winning author Ron Rash wrote the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New York Times bestseller Serena, in addition to three other prizewinning novels.

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