'Nightwoods' evokes a sense of (a scary) place
Book review: "Nightwoods," the new novel by Charles Frazier ("Cold Mountain"), is also set in the American South, this time a "hillbilly mountain town" in the 1960s. The story pivots around Luce, an emotionally scarred 20-something who works as the caretaker of an abandoned lakeside lodge.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Nightwoods: A Novel'
by Charles Frazier
Random House, 259 pp., $26
Charles Frazier has made his name as a novelist by exploring the history of the American South, starting with his extraordinarily successful saga about the Civil War, "Cold Mountain." His second work of fiction, "Thirteen Moons," locked onto the American frontier of coonskin caps and bigger-than-life characters.
Now, in "Nightwoods," he shifts to the mid-20th century and Flannery O'Connor territory. It was O'Connor, after all, whose work showed how violence and blood are as much a part of the region as its red clay soil.
The title is a tipoff to how much a sense of place matters in this novel. In fact, Frazier turns the landscape into the book's most convincing character, evoking its hills and dales, laurels and hemlocks, tobacco leaves and cabbages with "dusty green outer leaves veined like the back of an old man's hand."
As for the people, they are an uncompromising sort, delivered in less lyrical terms that suggest just how mundane their lives are. The setting is a "hillbilly mountain town," a backwater still emerging from the 1960s. Around these parts, you'll still find "hog killings, oil lamps, fetching water, outhouses, and all that other old business."
The story pivots around Luce, an emotionally scarred 20-something who works as the caretaker of an abandoned lakeside lodge. In high school, she was beauty-queen material. Subsequently, she chose a hermit's life — a solitude that's suddenly broken when she inherits her murdered sister Lily's children, Dolores and Frank.
They're a pair of pyromaniac twins who demand her full attention just to keep them from burning down the lodge.
Two more new arrivals also rattle Luce's quiet existence: Stubblefield, grandson of the lodge's owner and heir, who comes to claim his assorted properties; and Bud, Lily's husband, who plans to snuff out the twins because they watched as he killed their mother.
Stubblefield, smitten with Luce, dons the white hat in the story. Bud, the kind who never does the right thing if the wrong is an option, grabs the town's lucrative bootlegging business and finds a perfect compatriot in Lit, the sheriff's deputy. Lit's connection to Luce and Lily is a contrivance but also suggests that the rural South is composed of some very small worlds.
In "Nightwoods," Frazier captures the cadences of this time and place, including a certain resigned acceptance. Lily busted out and paid a terrible price. Luce turned inward, instead.
Observing the twins, the surviving sister notes, "Repent was a lost word in their lexicon. They did what they did and moved forward despite whatever trail of ashes they left behind. And Luce wondered if maybe that was what they had to teach her ... . Nothing changes what already happened. It will always have happened. You either let it break you down or you don't."
Frazier's ability to set the scene and his empathy for Luce carry "Nightwoods" from beginning to end. Unfortunately, a predictable plot makes even the foreshadowing seem obvious. Early on, when Luce pulls out the razor Lit gave her on her 16th birthday, you know the sharp little gadget will play a bigger role before the story ends. When the twins run away, you know Bud will follow.
Like Frazier, Flannery O'Connor used foreshadowing and a sense of place to explore her characters' lives and limitations, including their ignorance and propensity for cruelty. "Nightwoods" seems to travel the same road but with more limited effect.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."
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