Nightwoods by Charles Frazier

Reviewed by Lauren Starnes, WLU ’12

Charles Frazier’s haunting new novel, Nightwoods paints a poignant portrait of love and survival in the unforgiving North Carolina Mountains.  Rather than the nineteenth-century setting of his previous novels, Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons, Frazier sets this tale in the late 1950s.  Despite this change, however, everything from his characters to his writing feels reminiscent of the otherworldly and Gothic mood of his earlier novels.  The story centers on Luce, a young woman who lives a solitary life.  Luce becomes the guardian of her sister’s twin children after the youngsters witness their mother’s brutal murder by their stepfather, Bud.  Within this already compelling narrative of suspense and mystery, Frazier interweaves tensions between Luce and her absent parents as well as a fledgling romance.  Oddly enough, the most remarkable facet of Nightwoods ends up being the relationship between the eerie twins and their ruthless and unrelenting stepfather.

Initially, the story, like its protagonist, is seemingly unembellished and simple, but as the book goes on it becomes clear that there are darker forces at work.  Luce is content with her hermit-like existence working as the caretaker of the dilapidated Wyah lodge, conveniently located deep in the Appalachian Mountains.  Frazier’s depiction of the children is both sympathetic and haunting.  When they first arrive at Luce’s doorstep, Frazier describes them as “Not really glaring, but with the manner of looking at you and yet not at you.  Predatory…scoping their surroundings for whatever next prospect might present itself, but not wanting to spook anybody.  Not yet.”  Soon the ostensibly mute youngsters reveal their inclination toward violence and fire.  They make short work of two roosters, and it does not take long for the twins to steal away and set fire to a nearby cabin.  Thanks to Frank, Dolores, and their silent chaos, Luce is transformed from a hermit-in-training to a teacher, warden, and firefighter.

Frazier’s writing is at its best when he portrays the novel’s most chilling characters.  Like his rendering of Dolores and Frank, the author’s depiction of Bud, the children’s vicious stepfather and their mother’s murderer, proves to be surprisingly captivating.  After he is acquitted of murder–thanks to the efforts of a wily lawyer– Bud pursues the children because he believes they know the location of some stolen money.  He ends up befriending many people in the nearby town, including Luce’s own father who is the local deputy.  Frazier makes it clear that Bud is a bloodthirsty psychopath. In fact, Bud resembles one of Cormac McCarthy’s villains, but with a background and a sliver of a soul.  Furthermore, Frazier makes it obvious that Bud has already traumatized the twins in unspeakable ways, which makes the scenes involving these three individuals all the more fascinating.  In the end, Frazier crafts three characters who collectively end up stealing the scene from the protagonist.

Occasionally, Frazier goes overboard with the archaic language and extensive musings on the beauty of nature. Nevertheless, Nightwoods is a fast-paced read.  Particularly in the last third of the narrative, Frazier creates a wonderfully suspenseful story.  After an exceptionally bone-chilling encounter with Bud, the twins flee into the mountains, with both Luce and Bud in hot pursuit.  Eventually, Luce squares off against Bud in order to protect the children she now loves.  Ultimately, in Nightwoods Frazier crafts a genuinely memorable and exciting story of love, violence, and the awe-inspiring power of nature.