From time to time a piece of fiction comes along that is so fine yet simply put that it seems the stuff of life itself.
Ron Rash's "The Cove" is such a book – a novel of another time that could be today, a piece of history and humanity by way of a war and young love.
Combined with the dank, shadowed cove itself, and the often-luminous prose of author Rash, "The Cove" becomes that rarest of commodities – a genuine triumph. (And a humble one at that.) It is a novel that begins, and ends, with the human condition.
As the book's heroine, Laurel Shelton, puts it at one point, "What it all meant was a knot she couldn't unsnarl, but when it did unsnarl, what then?"
The year is 1918, the last year of the Great War, and Laurel is washing up in the darkened kitchen of her cabin in the cove, itself a damp valley overshadowed by a giant cliff "as though the cliff's shadow was so dense it soaked through the wood.
"Nothing but shadow land, her mother had told Laurel, and claimed there wasn't a gloamier place in the whole Blue Ridge. A cursed place as well, most people in the county believed, cursed long before Laurel's father bought the land."
Laurel's own family is believed cursed, her father and mother both dying young, her brother Hank back from the war but missing a hand, and Laurel herself with a purple "birth stain" that the people of Mars Hill believe marks her a witch.
Yet Hank and Laurel have a gift – that of keen human spirit. Hank is strong, and capable, even without one hand (and has won the heart of a local girl he soon will marry). Laurel is also filled with young hope, "waiting for her life to begin."
But if this sounds like a melodrama – "The Cove" is far from it.
With shades of Stephen Crane and other earlier American writers, Rash transcends any lesser genre, writing with such clarity and beauty that "The Cove" stands alone. It has love, loyalty and suspense as well as ignorance and hatred all wrapped into a small cove and town, compromising, of course, a microcosm of the world – in but a speck of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina.
"The Cove" begins decades after the fact, as a Tennessee Valley Authority employee enters the long-abandoned reach, stopping at what is left of the siblings' cabin, going on to its old well – and finding, as the well's murky waters begin to clear, "a round and pale solidity, except for the holes where the eyes had been."
Thus, the book's mystery established, we go gladly into the darkened cove of Laurel's day – a sad and brave time for a lonely girl into whose life comes not only glimpses of the Carolina parakeet (thought to be extinct) but sounds of music unknown to her, coming through the trees:
"Through a gap in the leaves she saw a haversack, then shoes and pants. Laurel lifted her gaze, her eyelids squinched to shutter the brightness … a man sat with his back against a tree, eyes closed as his fingers skipped across a silver flute. All the while his cheeks pursed and puffed, nostrils flaring for air …"
Scarce time passes before the musician – a mute stranger bound for New York City – is attacked by a swarm of bees and, needing care, takes up temporary residence with Laurel and Hank, keeping to himself but helping out around the cove.
Only Hank and Laurel's elderly friend and neighbor, Slidell, and two music-playing friends of Slidell's ever get to meet the silent stranger, known to them only as "Walter."
But if the cove is quiet, the nearby town of Mars Hill is abuzz – with word of the war and of local enlisted boys, maimed or killed in the great battle across the ocean.
An insufferable young townsman, Chauncey Feith, is the local military recruiter, a position be believes, in his ignorance and arrogance, gives him license to ferret out local residents he irrationally decides are complicit with the enemy – or, as Feith would put it, "Huns."
When a veteran returns saying the war is "nothing more than a bunch of men killing each other for a few acres of mud," Chauncey counters with the warped notion that, even in Mars Hill, people's lives are in danger: The county they live in, he claims, is "all but overrun with Germans … and just because they didn't wear Hun army uniforms no one seemed worried a bit by them being here." So Chauncey sets out to set his people straight.
When a local professor who can speak German travels to the camp to help the detainees and the governments communicate with one another, Feith is outraged – and seizes upon this gesture by raiding the home of the professor, then going to the town library to confiscate any books that look German to him.
There is a certain hilarity to this – until Feith's misguided fervor turns deadly.
There is also something familiar, Feith being but one of a kind, and war always having an all-encompassing effect – for good or ill and, inevitably, heartbreak.
Rash is lyrical here, elevating a time and place to near-literature. In his hands, the lowly cove becomes a place of enchantment – as Slidell and his friends come by for an evening of music, as Walter serves as Hank's other hand, as Laurel and Walter envision a long life together.
By the novel's end, we know we have been someplace important – and will not soon forget Rash's gift for genius loci, that rare, unshakable spirit of place. Nor will we forget that there were once simpler times, and the likes of Laurel, Walter and Hank walking about within them.
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.
By Ron Rash
Ecco255 pages, $26.99