I tend to bracket Ron Rash’s Appalachian novels alongside Kent Haruf’s Holt series – both explore big themes on a small canvas; both are carefully expressed – which is why I put up my hand for The Caretaker as soon as I spotted it. Set in 1951, during the Korean War, it has at its heart the cruellest of deceptions set in train when the son of a small town’s wealthiest family is reported wounded and on his way home.
There were so many lies to keep straight and more would come. Like a long line of boxcars on a steep grade, just one unhitched could cause disaster.
A stabbing by a North Korean soldier provides a ticket home for Jacob Hampton where his pregnant wife is waiting for him. Working as a hotel maid and barely literate, Naomi is so far from the wife the Hamptons had set their heart on for Jacob that they disinherited their only son when the couple eloped. Before he left, Jacob had asked his childhood friend to look after Naomi. Disfigured by polio, Blackburn is the cemetery caretaker, respectful of both the dead and the bereaved in a town which chooses to turn its face away from him. Blackburn makes sure that the couple’s farmhouse is in order, taking Naomi home to Tennessee as her due date draws near. Naomi once thought Jacob’s parents might accept her but a public altercation with his father has put paid to that idea. Blackburn continues to ensure Naomi is well and has all she needs, despite the long journey to Tennessee. When the telegram arrives at the town’s post office, addressed to Naomi telling her of Jacob’s return, a misguided act of kindness leads to a deception which causes terrible heartache.
The sun held steady in the sky. By late afternoon, hidden gravestones emerged. Outside the cemetery, ice sleeves slipped of limbs, a brittle chiming as they shattered.
Rash sets the scene for tragedy with this novel which explores themes of love, loyalty, betrayal and the legacy of war. There’s a thread of suspense running through it which makes me reluctant to reveal too much about the deception and its fallout but it’s the characterisation that makes the novel stand out for me. Rash is careful to portray the Hamptons as largely decent people – their kindness to many during the Depression remembered in the town – who had suffered the deaths of two of their children before Jacob was born. Blackburn is the upstanding, loyal friend, a decent man who continues to do the right thing despite temptation and shunning by the town. As ever, Rash’s use of language is strikingly evocative, his descriptions of the natural world marking the change of seasons beautifully. The ending wasn’t quite what I expected but that’s no bad thing.
Canongate Books: Edinburgh 9781805301653 272 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)