three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
user_rating: 
0

A-NightwoodsCharles Frazier won the National Book Award for his celebrated debut, the Civil War epic Cold Mountain (1997), which later became a movie starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger. All three of Frazier's novels--including Thirteen Moons (3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2006)--take place in his native North Carolina.

The Story: "What good does the world do you?" grumbles Luce, a troubled young woman who has turned her back on 1960s society to live a quiet, isolated life deep in the Appalachian Mountains. The stillness, however, shatters when a social worker drops off her recently orphaned niece and nephew, Dolores and Frank, twins so severely traumatized by their mother's murder that they act out in alarming and violent ways. Unenthusiastic but determined, Luce does her best to nurture the children, but her efforts are hampered by two additional arrivals--Stubblefield, a young man still nursing an adolescent crush on her; and Bud, a charming psychopath with a grudge against the children.
Random House. 272 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781400067091

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"What might seem like a fairly basic suspense novel ... is in fact a virtuoso construction, with layer upon layer of wounds, not one of which has completely healed. ... The novel finds humor of every variety, with wickedly wry dialogue reminiscent of the best of Charles Portis, Larry Brown, and Cormac McCarthy, and there is even an elaborate small set-up of near slapstick." Rick Bass

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"With short chapters and a quickly moving plot, Nightwoods has the rich, poetic writing that Frazier is justly famous for, but instead of luxuriating in historical detail, Nightwoods takes the reader on fast-paced journey, one that is often violent and sometimes quite thrilling. ... With its reclusive, introspective heroine, poetic prose and obsessed, violent antagonist, Nightwoods almost reads like the deliciously twisted love child of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men." Laura C.J. Owen

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Sorry, haters, but this is a fantastic book: an Appalachian Gothic with a low-level fever that runs alternately warm and chilling. ... A mountain--yes, a cold one--plays a central role in this superbly paced story, but otherwise Frazier has moved on from his earlier work. His fans will be pleased, his detractors brought up short, and all of us should be grateful for another very fine novel to read this fall." Ron Charles

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The one downfall of the novel is the portrayal of ... Bud, who comes across as the archetypal ‘bad guy' with little emotional subtlety or depth. ... In the end, it is Frazier's verisimilitude of North Carolina backwoods and how this particular place shapes his characters and their footing in his imagined world that bring this story alive." S. Kirk Walsh

Charlotte Observer 3 of 5 Stars
"Now we have Nightwoods--part roman noir, part overcorrection of an earlier overcorrection--and, I regret to say, a tale of good vs. evil that sinks its teeth into the reader expertly, and ends in a cloud of unrealized possibilities whose most recognizable forms are its undeveloped plot twists and turns. ... What makes Nightwoods compelling reading is Frazier's subtle, sinuous prose, sometimes expressed in icy-apt descriptive phrases." Bruce Allen

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Like Charles Frazier's earlier novels, Thirteen Moons (2006) and the best-selling Cold Mountain (1997), his suspenseful, if often heavy-handed, new book, Nightwoods, conjures the untamed land of southern Appalachia with a native's unsparing love and wary respect. ... Such over-the-top passages are not only ridiculously melodramatic, but they also rip a hole in the textured emotional fabric of this novel, which Mr. Frazier has so painstakingly woven through his depiction of Luce, Stubblefield and the two children, and the Appalachian landscape they inhabit." Michiko Kakutani

USA Today 3 of 5 Stars
"There are sentences you stop to reread just for their originality. But there's a big problem. For most of Nightwoods' 259 pages, the plot is as exciting as watching pine sap drip." Deirdre Donahue

Critical Summary

Frazier has swapped the 19th century for a 20th-century setting, minimized the clichéd backwoods vernacular, and tempered the larger-than-life scope of his previous works to cast a mournful and disturbing spell in his latest novel, distinguished by vivid characters, a suspenseful plot, and graceful, restrained prose. His wry sense of humor serves as an excellent counterpoint to the mounting tension, and according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Nightwoods occasionally reads more like a thriller than a piece of literary fiction. Most highly praised of all, however, are Frazier's achingly beautiful descriptions of the rural North Carolina landscape. A few critics objected to some undeveloped plot strands and melodramatic language, but most agreed with the Washington Post that Nightwoods is "a fantastic book."