Ron Rash is one of today’s most prolific literary writers. With more than a dozen books of fiction and collections of short stories, as well as five books of poems, this western North Carolina writer knows how to create great tales with evocative images.
One story from 2004 (“Something Rich and Strange”) described so brilliantly a young girl’s drowning in a fast-moving river that it still lingers in my memory as if I had read it yesterday.
Like most of Rash’s fiction, his new novel, “The Risen,” is set in North Carolina and again revolves around water, but here it’s a creek with two brothers and a mysterious woman named Ligeia. On the first page we learn that something unusual, and likely not good, happened to her when she was a teenager more than 40 years before.
In the summer of 1969, 16-year-old Eugene and his brother Bill meet Ligeia at a swimming hole. They learn that she was sent to North Carolina from Florida by her parents in an effort to temper her adolescent wildness. Her open sexuality and eagerness to alter her state of consciousness match the youthful desires that were becoming prevalent then, but had not yet become common in the world of these brothers. But soon they would be, thanks to Ligeia, who then disappeared as quickly as she had arrived.
Rash tells this story in the present-day voice of Eugene, whose life has not gone well, mostly as a result of his drinking. Bill’s life, on the other hand, seems — at least on the surface — to be much more successful; he’s a talented surgeon following in the career of their grandfather, who played a large but psychologically abusive part in their upbringing.
As in many of Rash’s previous novels, the troubled pasts of his characters in “The Risen” are the cause of their present-day woes. And with sudden news of Ligeia, Eugene and Bill find their small-town world even messier and more complex.
Rash is a master storyteller, keeping us entranced, baffling us a bit and splitting our alliances among his characters and their divergent actions and attitudes. While some of the teenage dialogue in this new novel is a bit clichéd, “The Risen” is a memorable story of torn relationships, deceitful actions, adolescent entanglements and the hope for redemption within a very troubled family.
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle in Portland, Ore.
By: Ron Rash.
Publisher: Ecco, 253 pages, $25.99.