“No looking back. Life goes one way only, and whatever opinions you hold about the past have nothing to do with anything but your own damn weakness. Nothing changes what already happened. It will always have happened. You either let it break you down or you don’t.”
Nightwoods, the third novel from the author probably best known for his much loved novel Cold Mountain, is set in the Appalachian Mountains about a decade after the end of the Second World War. Luce, is a loner, a caretaker at a mountain bed and breakfast, The Lodge, long out of use, she leads a quiet life falling asleep to the sound of country music radio, watching the lights of the town across the lake dance on the dark water. With the owner of The Lodge having recently died, Luce’s future already seems uncertain. Then the children arrive. Luce’s sister Lily has been murdered and Luce has been appointed guardian of her twin children, Dolores and Frank. The children are united by more than their twin-ness, they are silent conspirators in fire lighting and chicken murder. Their arrival changes Luce’s solitary existence, challenging her non-maternal instincts and bringing back, sharply memories of her own childhood.
“Luce’s new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent. She learned early that it wasn’t smart to leave them unattended in the yard with the chickens. Later she’d find feathers, a scaled yellow foot with its toes clenched, Neither child displayed language at all, but the girl glared murderous expressions at her if she dared ask where the rest of the rooster went.”
The daughters of a self-centred drunk and a hard, drug taking lawman, Luce and Lily grew up not relying much on anyone else. Lily was the one, who contrary to expectations went away, marrying young, her twins were born, her husband died, and then she met the man who was to become her murderer. Luce stayed close to where the girls had grown up, her mother long gone; she hasn’t spoken to her father in years. Now she must care for her sister’s, mute, damaged children. What did their step-father Bud do to them, to cause them to be so silent?
Bud, hires a shark of a lawyer, and a mistrial is declared, and Bud is freed. His thoughts turn to the money he believes Lily took from him, and her children, the only witnesses to what happened. Bud arrives at the town across the lake, makes an unlikely friend and quickly discovers a way to make illegal money quickly, all while making tentative enquires about Lily’s children. Bud isn’t quite subtle or clever enough to stop a bit of gossip about himself in town, gossip which will eventually reach the ears of an old admirer of Luce’s back in town.
Stubblefield is the grandson of the recently deceased owner of The Lodge; the bed and breakfast is his inheritance, and finding Luce and her sister’s children there makes him re-think his plans, as he remembers back to the time he first saw Luce when she was a teenager. Stubblefield is a kind man, he works quietly to break down the barriers that Luce has built up around herself and strives to protect the fragile little family, bringing warmth and stability to their lives.
Luce and Stubblefield are soon made all too aware of the threat that Bud poses them and the children, still largely silent and terror struck, rely on each other for protection. In trying to protect Frank and Dolores, Luce and Stubblefield takes them on a spontaneous journey, which sees her facing up to the sadness of her own childhood, and her mother Lola’s abandonment of her and her sister.
“People don’t change, Lola said. Maybe you’re still young enough to pretend that’s not true. People are who they are, and everybody around them has to take it or go somewhere else.”
Set against a backdrop of stunning mountain landscape, deftly described by Frazier, Nightwoods, is the story of family, love, and healing the wrongs of the past. It is more a novel of people and place than it is a thriller which aspects of the premise might lead one to expect if they didn’t know Frazier’s writing. There is a fast paced cat and mouse chase through the mountains towards the end of the novel, but the majority of the novel is a thoughtful, slower moving narrative, beautifully written.
I found that I enjoyed this novel far more than Frazier’s second novel Thirteen Moons, which I confess I can remember virtually nothing of. This is a novel rich in imagery, like Cold Mountain, although not quite as brilliantly unforgettable as that wonderful novel, it is a slow, though rewarding read. Luce is a fascinating, sympathetic character, her life at The Lodge one easy to envy. Dolores and Frank, the silent damaged children she learns to love tug at the heartstrings, although Frazier never makes the mistake of portraying them sentimentally, their mute companionability though is quite endearing.