With comparisons made to John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy on the front cover and tributes from Daniel Woodrell and Irvine Welsh on the back, Ron Rash's latest novel has a lot to live up to, but the American author meets those expectations easily with a poetic vision and clarity of prose that's the envy of most writers.
This is Rash's fifth novel and, including story and poetry collections, his thirteenth book overall, and he finally seems to be getting commercial success to match his critical acclaim. As well as winning the Frank O'Connor award two years ago for his brilliant story collection Burning Bright, a movie of his last novel, Serena, is in the pipeline.
It's well deserved. The comparisons to Steinbeck and McCarthy are spot on, as Rash – who lives in the Appalachian mountains and sets all his work there – seems to dig his stories out of the rural dirt, using his familiarity with the cadence of the language and the subtleties of local geography to instil a supreme, quiet authority over every sentence.
The Cove is set in the most remote part of Madison County in 1917, where Laurel and her brother Hank struggle to survive on a hardscrabble farmstead in a cove that barely seems to see the light of day. Hank has returned from the First World War missing a hand, while Laurel's port-wine stain birthmark sees her ostracised by locals who still cling to old folksy superstitions and think her a witch.
One morning, Laurel discovers a man in the woods near the farm, almost stung to death by a swarm of wasps. As she nurses him back to health, she discovers that the man – Walter – is mute and can't read or write, but can play the flute like an angel. When Walter recovers, he stays on the farm to help Hank with the chores, and Laurel begins to fall in love with him.
All this is set against a backdrop of small-town paranoia and hysteria. Members of the local town, whipped up by Kaiser-bashing propaganda, seek to persecute anyone they suspect of spying for the enemy, and ludicrously pick on a local German-American professor at a nearby college.
Inevitably and inexorably, these two storylines are drawn together, with a sense of doom and fatality that is painful to read but superbly executed. While Rash sucks the reader in with the plot, it is the beautiful precision of his line-by-line prose that is the real joy of The Cove. The descriptions of Laurel and Hank's existence are mesmerising and poetic, never cluttered or overwritten. It is a hard life and that is reflected in the language, but there is elemental beauty to be found even in the darkest recesses of the world and the mind, and Rash finds it in spades.
This is as patient, understated, precise and controlled a narrative as you'll read anywhere. These are not, perhaps, the most hip or cool qualities, but they are what make The Cove such an unmitigated joy to read.