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Sunday, September 4, 2011


by Charles Frazier
(4/5 stars)

I read Frazier's "Cold Mountain" and while I enjoyed it, I think "Nightwoods" is a far more accessible book for more casual readers. After a slow start it becomes a thriller not unlike a Dean Koontz book I once read, though Frazier is a better writer by far.

This takes place in the 1960s in the Appalachians somewhere, a little lake town that isn't really named. Luce lives up there in an old lodge as the caretaker. She's alone since the old man who owned the place died. But then the state brings her slain sister Lily's two kids. You have to suspend a little disbelief that even in the '60s they'd give Luce custody of two small children--especially two small children with psychological problems--when she has no income to speak of and no home of her own. But I digress.

The children are named Dolores and Frank. They're a couple of little pyromaniacs who never speak. Whether they're autistic or something similar or just traumatized isn't entirely answered.

The next fifty pages or so are as dull as Maryanne Robinson's "Housekeeping" only with nature walks and lighting fires instead of braiding hair and making cookies. Things begin to pick up when the children's stepfather Bud is introduced. He of course murdered Lily and perhaps traumatized the kids. Though it's not intentional, he of course winds up in the lake town in search of thousands of dollars he stole and that Lily hid somewhere.

Also arriving on the scene is the beach bum Stubblefield. His grandfather was the one who owned the lodge where Luce and the children are staying. When he was 17, Stubblefield had a crush on Luce that was not reciprocated. But now Stubblefield sees a second chance.

Those are all the pieces of the puzzle. You might be able to figure out how they all go together. Much of it is predictable, though Frazier is a good enough writer that it never seems hackneyed. While it doesn't have the epic grandeur of "Cold Mountain" there's still a lot of rural, American Gothic flavor to be had. It isn't as good as Faulkner, but it's not as bad as Dean Koontz either.

Although something troubling to me is that the book slips from past tense to present tense in the last part.  I'm not sure why that happened.  It's always odd when authors do that stuff.

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