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Ron Rash's new novel 'The Risen': Remarkable

A headline blares: "Remains Identified as Jane Mosely," with a photograph of a young woman who, in the summer of 1969, had initiated 16-year-old Eugene Matney into the rites of sex, booze, and drugs.

Ron Rash, author of "The Risen."
Ron Rash, author of "The Risen."Read more

The Risen

By Ron Rash

Ecco. 272 pp. $25.99

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Reviewed by Dannye Romine Powell

nolead ends A headline blares: "Remains Identified as Jane Mosely," with a photograph of a young woman who, in the summer of 1969, had initiated 16-year-old Eugene Matney into the rites of sex, booze, and drugs.

Eugene and his dutiful older brother Bill knew the red-haired, free-spirited nymph visiting from Daytona Beach, Fla., as Ligeia, slippery and beautiful as a mermaid. On hot afternoons at Panther Creek outside Sylva, they had blissfully caroused with her in the cool water.

But early on, Bill, a senior at Wake Forest with a steady girl and plans for medical school, pulls away. Eugene continues to fall heedlessly in love as he and Ligeia guzzle wine and pop the pills that Eugene filches from his physician grandfather's cabinet.

Who wouldn't be drawn into The Risen, the latest from Ron Rash?

Near summer's end, Ligeia, of course, has news - she's pregnant, a revelation that causes a life-long rift between the brothers. Soon, she disappears. So now, it's clear: Someone stuffed her dead body into a tarp and buried it near the creek. But who?

If a whodunit doesn't sound like Ron Rash, hang on. Other things do.

Maybe gothic is something Rash can't help. The Risen can claim Nebo, a mute handyman who waits on the back-porch steps, his shaved head in the summertime looking as if it has been boiled. And there's Ligeia herself, whose name belongs to one of the beguiling Sirens and means "clear-voiced" and "whistling."

You will recognize Rash for his interest in family dynamics.

When Eugene and Bill were young, they and their widowed mother moved in with her father-in-law, the domineering town physician who knew everyone's secrets - "which husband had contracted gonorrhea, which daughter needed to visit an aunt for a few months, which mother took Valium."

Eugene, who narrates this tale, is now a 62-year-old failed writer, a struggling alcoholic, divorced, and also estranged from his only daughter. Bill, on the other hand, has long been an esteemed surgeon, married to his college sweetheart. Even by Eugene's accounting, Bill's "a good man, compassionate, generous."

Why did one brother go one way, one another? Maybe good/bad, successful/not, is not the point. Maybe it's the integrity with which a person manages to survive. Rash is grappling here with age-old questions of good and evil, selfishness and unselfishness, empathy and compassion and its lack.

The Risen is an important - and intriguing - novel from one of our master storytellers. In its pages, the past rises up, haunting and chiding, demanding answers of us all.

This review originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer.

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