Ron Rash’s new novel has all the elements I particularly enjoy in fiction: the story is set in the North Carolina mountains at the height of WWI; the backdrop of the Appalachian mountains provides a hauntingly eerie mood; the characters are quirky and true; the writing is skillfully lovely. Yet, this novel fails to satisfy; putting my finger on a reason has kept me up nights.
The story involves a brother and sister, Hank and Laurel Shelton, who live in the cove, a dark place where evil things happen. Hank is a returned veteran who left his good arm in France, and Laurel is a lonely young woman, waiting for life to begin. She discovers at stranger on their land, Walter, when she hears a beautiful sound. At first, she thinks it is a rare bird, but she finds out it is Walter playing a flute. He is a mute, as explained by the note pinned to his shirt. And he is injured, stung by bees. Laurel takes him in, nurses him to health. Slowly, they fall in love.
Their happy ending is complicated by the patriotic fervor of the local enlistment recruiter, Chauncey Feith, who is determined to enroll every able-bodied young man in the service of his country.
So, why doesn’t the novel work? Part of the problem is that while reading the book, I never forgot I was reading a story. In the best fiction, the idea of story is completely purged from my mind while I live the events as they happen, as if they were happening to me. That didn’t happen here. A thin veil stood between the novel and me. I simply didn’t care much what the characters experienced.