Kirkus Reviews QR Code
NIGHTWOODS by Charles Frazier

NIGHTWOODS

By Charles Frazier

Pub Date: Oct. 4th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6709-1
Publisher: Random House

A Southern gothic narrative that’s strong on characters and backwoods atmosphere but undermined by literary affectation.

Though the third novel by Frazier (Thirteen Moons, 2006, etc.) makes occasional reference to Thunder Road, it could inspire a movie as gripping as another with Robert Mitchum, The Night of the Hunter, which also finds two small children fleeing from a dangerous man with a murky past. In this novel, set a half-century ago, the children are orphaned by the murder of their mother and are sent to live with her sister, once the beauty of a small Southern town, now squatting on the grounds of an abandoned lodge at the edge of the mountains. The man in pursuit of the children is Bud, their stepfather and likely their mother’s murderer, though he was acquitted of the crime. He knows that the children saw something and might have something he wants, maybe a lot of money. But they don’t talk. Or won’t talk. Or can’t talk. They’re almost feral (and certainly pyromaniacs) as well as mute, discovers Luce, their aunt and now their caretaker, who “didn’t even really like the children, much less love them. But she loved Lily [her murdered sister] and would raise the children and not be trash.” While generally staying within the minds of the characters, the prose occasionally takes literary flight to jarring effect: “Lifeless as these woods are now, all the blood must flow in summertime, whereas Jesus’s blood covers the world every day of the year.” Or, in Luce’s impressions of a sunset: “Expressed as art, the colors would lay on canvas entirely unnatural and sentimental, and yet they were a genuine manifestation of place many evenings in fall.” Frazier’s characters aren’t as likely to think like that as the novelist is. When he tempers his tendency toward filigree and lets his bare-boned, hard-boiled plot progress, the novel packs a devastating punch.

Where his debut (Cold Mountain, 1997) won the literary lottery as an award-winning popular blockbuster, this suggests that Frazier is more than a one-hit wonder.