A mysterious, mute stranger comes to the Cove, where two misfit siblings live.
The cove after which Ron Rash's novel is named is a dark place, where the sun comes only briefly each day. Each time it does appear, it's already making its exit, leaving the reader with an anxious feeling throughout. As we move down the path that leads into the cove, Rash takes us past bottles and pieces of tin hanging from tree limbs over colored glass shards on the ground meant to "keep evil from coming through." It's an uneasy place, this cove.
And it's where siblings Hank and Laurel Shelton live. Life has been tough on them, and the people in the city outside the cove think it's because they live in the godforsaken place. They label Laurel a witch, pointing to a large purple birthmark as proof she's been marked by evil spirits. Hank has no such marking, but had suffered similar ill will until, having served his country in World War I and returned half an arm short, the neighbors in Mars Hill are able to let the tarnish of the cove slide off of him. So much so that he's engaged, a fate no one would have expected before the war and one that nobody could expect for Laurel, until a stranger named Walter comes to stay with the Sheltons.
Walter is German and has escaped an internment camp, but once out and safely hidden in the cove, he's not telling anyone that. Can't tell anyone, actually. As far as Laurel and Hank know, Walter is mute and far from the spy he's accused of being. He's a flutist, looking to get back to New York to play in an orchestra.
The characters in "The Cove" hold a mirror up to our modern world, reminding us that we often condemn certain people when we're actually scared of something bigger in the world. And while some people go about their lives simply trying not to bother anyone, in Rash's books, just as in life, those folks are often the ones who don't fare too well. Though there are points in the novel where the characters seem less believable than those in his previous books -- as though they're serving some purpose other than being themselves -- the story moves at a tense pace, with the best elements of both mystery and historical fiction.
The cove is a spooky setting where fleeting are the flashes of beauty -- the brief sun each day; a flock of Carolina parakeets, colorful and loyal to each other even in the face of a farmer's shotgun; a stranger's lack of preconceived notions; a song. There's a huge cliff extinguishing those flashes. But hope is a hard thing to black out, and somehow the protagonists hold onto it until the very end.
Still, when all is said and done, it's hard not to wonder if the best plan for the cove is one we learn about in the prologue of the book set in the 1950s, years after Laurel, Hank and Walter are gone: Flood it, turn it into a lake and trap all of its stories inside.
David Doody is a senior editor at Metro Magazine.