A Gentler Type of Cormac McCarthy

This is my review of Nightwoods by Charles Frazier.

After the phenomenal success of "Cold Mountain", the odyssey of a soldier's return from the American Civil War, it must be hard for Charles Frazier to achieve comparable success.

Although on a much smaller scale, "Nightwoods" is similar in showing Frazier's gift for spinning a yarn and displaying his deep knowledge of and love for the Appalachian wilderness combined with a sense of small town life in a rural backwater, portrayed with some sharp, witty dialogue and an ability to make unsavoury or even evil characters appear at times in some ways objects of sympathy.

It is sometime round 1960 when Gene Pitney was a rising popstar on the juke box. Luce is a tough young woman who is for some reason living in isolation from the town visible across the lake from the old lodge which she looks after for an old landowner called Stubblefield. Her hard but peaceful routine is disrupted by the appearance of "the stranger children", in fact the badly damaged young twins of her brutally murdered sister Lily. Luce's psychopathic brother -in-law Bud has a particular reason for tracking down these children. Meanwhile, following Stubblefield's death, his ne'er- do- well heir comes back to claim the inheritance. This is clearly the basis for a potentially tense thriller.

I was rapidly sucked in by not only the plot, but also the vivid, poetical descriptions of the mountainous wilderness of North Carolina, the sense of past history back even before the time of the Indians, the survival of a self-sufficient rural way of life, the neglected lodge – a vestige of the wealthy tourists from bygone days – and the inward-looking life of the small town enveloped in the backwoods with only tenuous road connections to the outside world.

Always a page turner, although some reviewers have found it slow at times, the story is never quite predictable since you know that Frazier is capable of including sudden acts of unexpected brutality and horror cheek by jowl with quite soft-centred or even sentimental passages.

Although I was a little disappointed by Frazier's handling of the plot from the point where Luce meets Bud face-to-face, since I thought that the potential drama often fell rather flat, this was offset by some unexpected twists, and I suspect that Frazier is really more interested in reflecting on the effects of "modern progress" and exploring the human psyche than he is in structuring a story. The final pages in practice prove quite tense.

Another slight reservation is that both Luce and Stubblefield Jnr. seem to undergo some rather rapid changes of attitude, but in a relatively short and spare novel perhaps we have to "take this as given" to leave space for Frazier's other ideas.

Highly recommended.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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