Friday, October 14, 2011

Back to the Woods

If you read Charles Frazier's best-selling novel “Cold Mountain”, the suspenseful odyssey of a Civil War deserter making his way home to the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, you may remember Frazier's talent for evoking the beauty and mystery of that landscape. He returns to that locale in his latest novel Nightwoods. Even the covers are similar, but this time the black silhouetted mountain scene has a red sky rather than a blue one. (Seems a little obvious, Random House).

This time the story is set in the early 1960's, but it takes a while to determine that, because the main character Luce is living virtually off the grid in an abandoned mountain lodge. Her self-imposed isolation is disrupted by the arrival of her niece and nephew, twin children of her sister Lily, who has been murdered by their stepfather Bud. The kids are clearly damaged goods – feral and unwilling to speak, fond of starting fires and killing roosters. And rotten-to-the-core Bud has found a smart lawyer and beaten the murder charge. Add to the mix Stubblefield, son of the deceased lodge owner, who has returned to examine his inheritance. (For some reason he is known only by his last name while all the other characters are called only by their first names). Seeing Luce rekindles in him a teenaged crush he had developed when he saw her at a poolside beauty contest, wearing sunglasses and eating a frozen Mars bar. And it's just that kind of detail that makes Frazier so enjoyable to read. He's a great storyteller, and always slips in just the right detail to make his characters come alive. Here's how he introduces Bud: “He had a criminal record by the time he was barely a teenager, caught shoplifting a coat pocket of yellow Sun 45s from a dime store”.

There's little Carson McCullers in this book (like her, Frazier has some characters not painted in shades of gray but clearly defined as good or evil), and some of Cormac McCarthy's malevolent intensity, but neither matches Frazier's ability to make you see, hear, smell, feel the woods of Appalachia. And the suspenseful last section of the book (other than the too tidy last chapter) kept me riveted.

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