Readers who prefer atmosphere over action will savor the first 150 pages of The Cove. It took me days to get through that first 150 pages, then I blew through the final 100 pages all in one day. It's quite a contrast in pacing and tone, and it gets surprisingly suspenseful near the end. So have a little patience and your payoff will come. After a prologue in which a human skull is found in the cove's well in the 1950s, Ron Rash treats us to a leisurely buildup in which the skull is all but forgotten. He takes us back to the rural North Carolina of 1918, with all its superstitions and prejudices and traditions intact. Rash's skill in re-creating the atmosphere of the era is formidable. We meet Laurel Shelton, a young woman who has been ostracized all her life because of her port-wine birthmark. Her brother Hank has lost a hand fighting in World War I. They live an isolated life in the cove, a dark and hollow spot where others fear to tread. Until Laurel brings home Walter, a mute flute player who awakens in Laurel the hope that she is lovable despite her physical imperfection. Tensions are high in the neighboring town of Mars Hill, with fear of the "Huns" among us making people jittery. Things take an alarming turn and the story winds down in an unexpected, and yes, tragic, way. It is Ron Rash, after all.3.5 stars, rounding up to 4 on the strength of the last 100 pages. Review copy provided by the publisher.