First published back in March of 2012, ‘The Cove’ formed US author Ron Rash’s fifth novel to see publication.

DLS Synopsis:
It’s 1918 and the first signs that the Great War might finally be drawing to an end were beginning to emerge.  Meanwhile, deep in the American backwater, in Madison County, the locals had been carrying on with life as best they could.

For Laurel Shelton, life was far from easy.  Living with her brother, Hank, in a small cabin in the gloomy depths of the cove, Laurel’s existence had always been one of near-isolation.  Shunned by the local community, the Shelton’s were thought by most to be cursed; the cove itself breeding nothing but bad fortune.

Because of such a spitefully strong belief that was held by almost all of the local community, Laurel had spent all her life so far either being shunned or viciously bullied.  A distinctive birthmark upon her body, only furthering the local whisperings.

With Hank now back from fighting in France, having lost his hand in the bloodshed, he had once again set his mind to fixing up their farm as best he could.  With help from eighty-one-year-old neighbour, Slidell Hampton, who was the only other person happy to venture into the Cove these days, Hank was making good progress with the work before the freeze of winter set in.  His courtship with Carolyn Weatherbee the one main factor pushing him to get the repair work completed.

But when Laurel Shelton happens upon a stranger in the nearby woods, playing the most beautiful music on his silver flute, everything is soon to change.  After spying upon the man a second time, Laurel realises that he has been stung near-to-death by a swarm of hornets.  After taking the man back to their cabin and nursing him back to health as best they could, Laurel and Hank learn that the stranger is a mute named Walter Smith who is also unable to neither read nor write.  Reading a note that she finds in one of his pockets, Laurel learns that Walter wishes to return to New York where he plans to make money from his beautiful flute playing.  Knowing this, the Shelton’s offer him food, accommodation and a little money in exchange for help with much of the labour on the farm for the few remaining days until the next train leaves for New York.

Meanwhile, army recruitment officer, Sergeant Chauncey Feith, is preparing for the heroic return of Private Paul Clayton from the terrible conflict in Europe.  As he prepares for a magnificent homecoming celebration, he ponders his own value in the Great War, and how best to be recognised for his valiant actions.  After all, he had not only been singlehandedly managing the recruitment, but also stamping out any possibility of German spies in their nearby vicinity.  Actions that had led to much unrest with a number of the locals.  But nevertheless, actions that he was sure were entirely necessary and which Senator Franklin Zeller would undoubtedly be in full support of.

But as Laurel and Hank continue to go about their own business in the cove with their new lodger, a dark cloud of ignorance is moving their way.  And when Laurel’s life is finally seeing the very first glimpses of happiness, bitter tragedy is once again in the damp air of the gloomy cove…

DLS Review:
Beginning with an atmosphere-setting prologue, American author Ron Rash’s mesmerising prose has the desired effect in setting a sad and lonely backdrop to the novel, immersed in utter misfortune and overcast in such unending misery.  With the short prologue over, the novel sets off in a similarly downcast fog, the lyrical writing creating an almost palpable atmosphere to the Shelton’s gloomy and shunned existence.  With the sudden emergence of a stranger in the cove, the story takes on a new note of intriguing mystery.  From here a series of flashbacks reveal to the reader patches of how this mysterious flute-playing-stranger came to arrive in the cove, along with sad glimpses of Laurel Shelton’s unhappy upbringing.

Much of the first half of the book is spent dwelling on the sadness bestowed to Laurel and her brother as they grew up in the cove.  Following the early death of their mother and their father, the tale wallows in a trench of lonely misfortune, whilst author Ron Rash builds further upon the already incredibly well fleshed-out characters.

The tale is certainly not one to be hurried into revealing its main plot.  Instead, it creeps forward, with much more emphasis and thought put into creating the right mood and establishing a strong connection between the reader and the characters.

Drenched as it is in sadness, it’s no real surprise to see the storyline gradually slipping ever downwards to embrace yet more wholly undeserved misery.  Not before long, the novel splits off into two threads; one focused on the Shelton’s and their new lodger, with the other surrounding Chauncey Feith and his desire to earn the respect of both the local community and his peers.  With these to threads running parallel to each other for much of the latter half of the book, the reader is all too aware that soon enough, they’ll come colliding together for what is sure to be an equally bitter and downtrodden finale.

The novel is an absolute masterclass in atmospheric beauty and magnificent characterisation.  With comparisons being made between the likes of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, it has to be said that Rash has an exceptional ability to paint a powerfully compelling picture awash with numerous emotional layers and a very human depth.

The novel runs for a total of 255 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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