Who killed the free spirit who changed 2 brothers’ lives?

“The Risen. Ron Rash. Ecco. 272 pages. $25.99.
“The Risen. Ron Rash. Ecco. 272 pages. $25.99.

Ron Rash’s latest novel, “The Risen,” draws you in swiftly: In present-day Sylva, 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 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 supply cabinet.

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. Now someone stuffed her dead body into a tarp and buried it near the creek. But who?

A whodunit doesn’t sound like the work of the bestselling novelist but literary Rash, who teaches at Western Carolina and sets most of his fiction and poetry in Appalachia. But his hand is evident. The book’s title is as boldly religious as his “Saints at the River” or “One Foot in Eden.” Clearly, we’re in for a deep ride.

“The Risen” has a more modern, less homespun, feel to it than, say, “The Cove,” in which the extinct Carolina parakeet flits about, or “Serena,” in which a blind hag delivers prophecies to the lumbermen.

But maybe gothic is something Rash can’t help. In “The Risen,” there’s 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, whose name belongs to one of the beguiling Sirens and means “clear-voiced” and “whistling.”

Rash’s interest in family dynamics continues. When Eugene and Bill were small, 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.” His need for control and obedience is mighty.

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

We wonder: Why did one brother go one way, one another? But maybe good vs. bad is not the point. Maybe the point is 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 novel — and an intriguing one — from one of our master storytellers. In its pages, the past rises up, haunting and chiding, demanding answers of us all.

Dannye Romine Powell reviewed this book for The Charlotte Observer.