Narrated by Merritt Hicks
Length: 6 hours 28 minutes
Hank and Laurel Shelton live in rural Appalachia on a homestead called the Cove, that is as dry and fickle as the people of the nearby town. Though the siblings try to go on with life as normally as possible, Laurel is unfairly branded as a witch due to a birthmark on her face. Hank, once a soldier who had seen combat in the Great War, now lives life with only one hand. But the locals have been kinder to Hank, and he even has a love interest whom he’s hoping to marry. Laurel, on the other hand, is treated with cruelty and disdain, and grows into a woman who is virtually isolated on the Cove—the same land that her parents lived and died on. When Laurel spots a stranger hiding on a remote area of her land, she is instantly intrigued by him. The stranger cannot speak, but soon becomes Hank’s right hand man on the farm and Laurel’s willing paramour. Life in this remote place seems almost idyllic with the stranger in their midst, but an unlikely chain of events lead towards disaster when secrets about the silent stranger come to the notice of the vengeful townspeople who are aching to see the downfall of Laurel and her hesitant and quiet lover. In this picturesque and eloquent novel of tragedy, Ron Rash shows us both the resilience and frailty of human life and the struggles we endure to attain our freedom and humanity.
I had the pleasure of hearing Ron Rash speak at SIBA last year, and when Kathy mentioned that he was one of the most loved and prominent authors of the South, I took notice and began looking for the perfect title to ensnare myself in. When The Cove was released, I knew that it was my turn to experience Rash’s brilliance for myself. I chose the audio version of this title, thinking that it would be a short and insightful read that would plunge me into the depths of what life might be like in rural Appalachia. The audiobook, however, was probably not the best way to experience this book. The narrator, Merritt Hicks, had a pleasant voice but it seemed to have no emotional range, and her narration felt very flat to me. This was a story that was rich with pathos and deeply surging emotion, but Hicks had a delivery that was as dry and blank as paper. I didn’t feel that she captured the intent and spirit of the book, which was disappointing, and while I loved the book itself, the audio version grated on my nerves a bit.
Laurel is a woman whom I could understand. Forced out of town and shunned, she became very isolated and lived most of her life in her head. Always dreaming of a way out of the Cove that she both loves and hates, Laurel is damaged by the senseless cruelty that the people outside her life inflict on her. She hopes and dreams, like all of us do, but her dreams are smaller and more related to daily survival. She eschews grand dreams of wealth and social acceptance, and instead worries what will become of her when Hank gets married and his new bride is installed in the Cove with the town witch. Laurel has every reason to be concerned, for Hank hasn’t been honest with Laurel regarding his marriage and living arrangements after the wedding. Though he’s trying to spare her feelings, her social standing is very bad for him and will cost him severely.
From the point of view of Hank, Laurel is just another thing to be sorted out. He loves his sister, yes, but he won’t let her status as a pariah hold him back. Into this emotional torpor comes a man who can help the wounded man and his sister make good on their promises to deliver a crop in the upcoming summer. This man, seeming to come from nowhere, is mute, but slowly Hank begins to trust him with more and more responsibility on the farm, whereas Laurel begins to let him into her heart. The romance between the two is slow and languid, and the stranger doesn’t mind the seclusion of the Cove or the birthmark on Laurel’s face. He is eager to be helpful to the damaged man who needs him, and tentatively begins to reach out to Laurel in her exile. By turns, he is loved and respected by both sister and brother, and finds a safe place in their home and hearts.
Before anyone realizes what has happened, Laurel, Hank and the stranger begin to be hunted by the townspeople for reasons that are unclear to Hank. Laurel, on the other hand, knows exactly what this is about, for the stranger has revealed things about himself that put him at great risk. With a great and terrible swiftness, love and fury meet head to head, and disaster comes calling at the Cove once again. Loyalty and strength are tested, and events that were once manageable become as wild and furious as the nature around them. Throughout the story, themes of belonging are coupled with loss, both on the small and grand scale. Hatred and prejudice strike against flinty resolve, and the result is a conflagration of unexpected and massive proportions. The sacred peace of the Cove is ruptured and broken, and each shard represents a separate heartbreak.
This was the kind of book that will leave readers feeling dazed and overcome with emotion for a small group of people who have been shunned by the outside world. I think that had I read it in print, it would have made much more of an impact, which tells me that Rash is an author that readers should take very seriously. I didn’t quite love the medium in which the story was told due to the stilted quality of the narration, but the book itself was powerful, painful and portentous. I’m looking forward to sampling more of Rash’s work, with Serena already loaded onto my iPod. I’ve heard that sparks fly from that book as well. Written with a thunderous precision, The Cove is a beautiful novel that leaves readers with a haunting and unexpected conclusion. Recommended.