Mystery hangs like a fog through each turn of Charles Frazier’s dark new novel, Nightwoods. The story is set in 1960s Appalachia, where violence is as much a part of the landscape as the poplar or the hickory; something to live alongside, something to ponder. Its source in this story is Bud, a hot-headed drifter who has murdered his wife over a sum of cash and orphaned her young twins, the only witnesses to the crime—and the only people alive who might know where the money is hidden. But the children are catatonic when they arrive in hill country, sent by the state to live with their Aunt Luce. Bud wonders if they might have his money, or if they’ll ever be able to talk about what they saw, and he aims to find out.
Luce, a spinster hermit who lives in an abandoned lakefront lodge at the foot of an ancient mountain, has shed all attachment to the world save an affinity toward her neighbor Maddie, who cooks in the old style, tends an aging pony and sings the murder ballads of a lost era. When the twins arrive, they are a thing apart, an oddity by any standard. Their cold expressions frighten Luce and they set fire to anything within reach. Luce is nearly at wit’s end when a young man named Stubblefield comes to reclaim his family’s lodge. In the end, he is her truest ally in the struggle to protect the children, from Bud and from themselves.
At its best, Nightwoods recalls the marauding madness of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. The characters are expertly molded from the very land they inhabit, calling attention to the shallowness of the grave in which our more violent past is buried. Frazier’s clipped sentence fragments are at first thrilling, underscoring the novel’s central theme. But those fragments become tired as the plot thins, and the tension that is so finely wound from the start begins to slacken as the story approaches a somewhat banal finale. Fans of Cold Mountain will be glad to see Frazier return to the land he knows so well, but they will only feel mildly sated by this third effort.