The Cove

Ron Rash

First Sentence: The truck’s government tag always tipped them off before his Kansas accent could.

The Cove is a book about Laurel and Hank Shelton, a brother and sister who live in a remote cabin in rural Appalachia during the first world war. That first sentence above however is set in the 1950’s, long after the events of the novel have taken place. This prologue, set in the 50s , ends with the government official discovering a skull in an old well when he stops to get a drink. We then go back to the main narrative, and are constantly wondering whose skull it is… The first sentence in chapter 1 of the book is as follows:

At first Laurel thought it was a warbler or thrush, though unlike any she’d heard before – its song more sustained, as if so pure no breath need carry it into the world.

And so begins the main story. Laurel happens upon Walter one day, a prisoner on the run, hiding in a nearby rhododendron bush. It is he who is playing this music on his flute and she is instantly enchanted. He is mute, and injured, so Laurel takes him in and it isn’t long before love blossoms. Meanwhile, Hank is not long back from the war, and is preparing to be married. He is getting ready to start a new life away from the cove, a place he has never held much affection for. In fact, it is the cove itself which proves to be the most commanding character in the book. Even more so than Hank or Laurel or even Walter. It is an incredibly evocative rendering by Rash. It is  an eerie and sinister place, forever shrouded in menace. At times it brings to mind John Burnside’s A Summer of Drowning when it is described as being ‘a place where ghosts and fetches wandered’. When Laurel is looking down on the cove from the outside one day, its differences are glaringly obvious:

As a child, the outcrop had been like a huge hand that lifted her out of the cove’s bleakness. Worst of all was the cabin. No matter the time of day or season or how many lamps were lit, it remained a dank dim place that, as long as Laurel could remember, always smelled of suffering. But up here the wide shelf of granite gathered the sun’s light and held it, swaddled Laurel in brightness. The light was like warm honey. Dewdrops on a spider’s web held whole rainbows inside them and a fence lizard’s tale shone blue as indigo glass.

For all the cove’s bleakness  however there is plenty of warmth in this very fine book and it is one I would have no qualms about recommending to almost anyone. Very, very enjoyable.

* * * *

Last Sentence: He would tell Goritz that he was ready.

Last Sentence explained:        In their isolated cove, Hank and Laurel don’t have to worry too much about the outside world. It is only when they go to town that things like Hank’s missing hand or Laurel’s birthmark on her face become an issue. Times are changing however, and it isn’t long before the outside world encroaches on the lives of those living in the cove. Especially Walter. As it turns out, Walter is no ordinary escaped convict. He is a German on the run and at the end his true identity is discovered and the townsfolk come looking for blood, Sergeant Chauncey Faith in particular. Chauncey is an army recruiter determined to show his worth and determined to kill this Hun at all costs. Instead however, he first accidentally kills Laurel by shooting at a tree she is hiding behind. Then, realising his error, he decides to kill Hank also and make it look like Laurel killed Hank, and then herself. Once he has killed brother and sister however, he steps backwards and plunges to the bottom of the well Hank and Walter have been digging for most of the book. (Becoming the skull discovered in the prologue).

The Goritz mentioned in the last sentence is a conductor who told Walter he could never be a proper musician until he had loved and lost. After his experiences in the cove, he decides he is ready.

Quote from Laurel about Walter’s flute playing (proof of her ‘leaky heart’):

‘If everyone could make sounds that beautiful, we’d never want to speak’, Laurel said. ‘We could just call to each other, let each other know we weren’t alone.’


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