Monday 18 December 2017

Fiction: Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

Canongate, €20.99

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

Anne Cunningham

Les, the county sheriff in a small rural community in North Carolina, is retiring in three weeks's time. Among other things, he’s overseeing the building of his small retirement home with its wraparound porch, and he thinks maybe he'll take up painting again. Hung on his office wall is a single picture, a print of Edward Hopper’s Freight Car at Truro.

Becky is a park ranger and tour guide in the local national park. She loves the outdoors and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Les and Becky have a relationship of sorts. Not quite lovers, not quite friends, Les describes them as “accomplices”, perhaps against the harshness of  life in the Appalachians.

Les is retiring earlier than he'd  planned. The replacement of moonshine stills with crystal meth factories have left him sickened and disillusioned, and he’s simply seen too much. But somebody has poisoned the river, somewhere above the waterfall in the local angling resort and it’s up to Les to investigate. All fingers point to an old man who lives nearby, a known poacher. Both Les and Becky know it’s not old Gerald, but Les must find the culprit before he retires.

A  plot summary of such an extraordinarily beautiful novel does it almost no justice. This rugged Appalachian stretch is Ron Rash’s country and he is bewitched by it.  There are snatches of original poetry scattered around in obvious homage to Hopkins, but more than the  purity of Rash's poetry, or the shimmering of his descriptive passages, it is the author's compassion for his flawed protagonists which elevates this novel. It’s an old-fashioned word, compassion, not found much in contemporary literature.  But it certainly captivated this reader.  Above the Waterfall is one of the finest literary novels I've read this year

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