Thursday, 16 May 2013

Heaven and Hell

The Cove (Canongate, 2012) was written by Ron Rash, a well-known Appalachian American. It is a superbly written story - thrilling, though a little unbelievable, almost a fairy tale, a Grimm fairy tale; yet one finishes the book with a feeling of lightness. The mute man's secret dawns on you gradually, you form your own theory about him and find out the truth at the end, which is also a beginning for one person. The heroine is a kind of saint and would be insipid except that we see her develop and gain the strength to hold up a mirror to her tormentors. She walks home with a difficult decision to make and pauses at a cross-roads to think. We know that this spot is dangerous -  a wild boar is around whom someone called Jehosaphat....The pigs on the farm are also portrayed as evil, there is an unspoken idea that they might be man-eating. The good is represented in the flock of beautiful singing birds which is shot down...

Heaven and hell are present right through the book, whether in the experiences people have to go through - war wounds, dreadful isolation in a dark house, digging at the bottom of a well (some of the best writing here), being wonderfully in love - or on board a great ship where heaven and hell are represented in a kind of festival.

At the end of an early chapter, the final sentence glows unexpectedly: "The word was not there." A Biblical intonation: no God. The uprooting of a great tree releases a ball of writhing snakes, a vision from hell. And towards the end, a man hides in the forest, and sees a stag with great antlers, which he thinks at first might be an hallucination. There has been no previous mention of stags - so is the stag a representation of Christ, I wonder...It fits, like a complex jigsaw puzzle.

Almost every page contains a word which is not common usage, understandable from the context. Most can be found in the dictionary and a couple are identified as 'American idiom'. The use of strange words and strange sentence constructions gives one the feeling of peering into a different world. Wikipedia lists Appalachian English as a dialect - not written much. Being fluent in another language than English may be an advantage for a writer: they can borrow metaphors which may be as telling in translation as in the original. and the knowledge of a different grammar and syntax enables the use of English in new ways - they know how the sentence works elsewhere.

I am always interested in the names authors choose for their characters, and discovered that those in this book bear genuine Appalachian names, including the villain, Chauncey. (I'd never come across a Chauncey before). The little town of Mars Hill exists in real life, as does its college. The narrative takes place about a century ago, after the First World War, which places the story safely beyond living memory. I wonder what the locals make of the way their town is portrayed.

 Thank you, Ron Rash. A great book.

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