Book review: Nightwoods by Charles Frazier

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Big ideas need room to breathe so what better choice than North Carolina for Charles Frazier’s new thriller which takes flight amongst the soaring Appalachian mountains.

Although many will recognise that this is the same landscape used to such stunning effect in Frazier’s acclaimed debut novel Cold Mountain, here the action moves forward 200 years into the early 1960s, a time of post-war melancholy, cultural change and social upheaval.

In Frazier’s sensitive hands, what should be a run-of-the-mill suspense story becomes a thing of literary beauty ... a subtle rail against the evils of so-called ‘progress’ and a moving meditation on the unforgiving cruelty of a natural world ‘red in tooth and claw.’

At the centre of Nightwoods’ beating heart is the beautiful loner Luce. Damaged and disillusioned by events in her past, she has fled to the forest, across the far shore of the mountain lake from town, to act as caretaker at an empty, decaying lodge, a relic of holidaymakers a century before.

She hardly misses anything from life as it is lived now, a place that ‘pressed so hard against you, like somebody standing in front of you screaming and jumping up and down to misdirect your thoughts.’

For three years she has asked herself what good the world does for you and the answer, she has concluded, is that ‘a distressingly large portion of it doesn’t do you any good whatsoever. In fact, it does you bad.’

Instead, she has culled daily reality and retained just ‘landscape and weather and animals and the late-night radio.’

But then the ‘stranger’ children arrive. ‘Small and beautiful and violent,’ Frank and Dolores are the traumatised twins of her sister Lily. They watched as their mother was murdered by their brutal stepfather Bud, and have been almost mute ever since. Feral and free-spirited, they love fire ‘above all elements of creation.’

And there’s another new arrival in town ... Stubblefield is the unmarried grandson of the deceased caretaker of the lodge and he wants to look over the childhood home he has now inherited. He fell for Luce years ago and meeting her again rekindles that youthful passion.

But unknown to them all, Bud’s lawyer has helped him to escape conviction and he is planning to hunt down the twins who may know where Lily hid a stash of stolen cash...

Every word, every phrase of this elegiac story seems precisely measured and yet it never loses the sense of unstoppable tension which builds inexorably to a gripping climax.

Frazier’s language is characteristically taut, often pared to bare essentials, but still manages to speak so eloquently of time, place, emotion and human nature.

Past, present and future are all represented in Nightwoods. Luce’s elderly friend Maddie is the mouthpiece of the past, Luce’s own life speaks of the violent present and in the twins we glimpse resilience and ultimately hope for the future.

A dazzling and atmospheric story which looks destined for the big screen...

(Sceptre, paperback, £7.99)