Sunday, 11 March 2012

Another world among the mountains

It's a long time now since I read Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier's acclaimed first novel, but I remember it as an intense, immersive read, persuading the reader to slow to the pace of its narrators and truly take in the details of the mountains in which they find themselves. That same powerful writing is present in Nightwoods - but it's coupled with a rather cliched plot-line that, in my opinion, weakens this otherwise excellent novel. Luce, a young woman living by herself in an isolated lakeside lodge, finds that she has to take on her sister Lily's children after Lily is murdered by her husband. In a second thread, Bud, the murderer, newly paroled, seeks out the children, as he believes they have the money that Lily took from him shortly before he killed her. Luce's attempts to build a relationship with the children are related alongside Bud's journey to the town where they live and his forging of relationships with the locals through his self-appointed post as bootlegger, including local sheriff Lit, Luce's father.

I found the first half of this novel utterly compelling. Frazier beautifully evokes the isolated area of North Carolina in the 1950s that is his setting, and his treatment of Luce's story is equally well-written. Although Bud is a less interesting character than Luce, the careful attention to practical detail in his plotline removed it from the realm of thriller and made me want to read on; for example, when on the run from a couple of minor robberies, he decides to dump the too-recognisable car he's driving: 'He knew enough about sinking cars from teenage joyriding to roll the windows down and open the trunk and hood.' Frazier brings locations to life through imaginative and unexpected descriptions, such as the Roadhouse bar which a number of the characters pass through, where 'Daylight blared gritty through the opened door and cast a vampire-killing trapezoid onto the nineteenth-century wood floor', or a distorted view of impossibly tall mountains; 'Have to be in Tibet to validate some of those upper peaks.' Luce is similarly illuminated through brief recounting of incidents from her past, such as a high school classmate's memory of her competing in a beauty pageant - something completely at odds with her present-day life.

Unfortunately, I found my interest waning somewhat in the second half of the novel, although it was still a good read. Bud's search for the money became the focus of the narrative, and this plot felt over-familiar to me - a re-hash of The Night of the Hunter or any number of other stories involving orphaned children and greedy villains. Given the importance of this plot thread, however, it seemed to be resolved rather too easily. Frazier's writing is still fantastic - a scene involving Bud and a group of ageing hunters high in the mountains is particularly well-evoked - and so to an extent, the weak plot is carried, but I found myself questioning why we needed it. For me, the parallel lives of Luce, Bud and a couple of other characters were enough to hold my interest - there seemed no need to attempt a thriller-type climax to what is, like Cold Mountain, an intense novel precisely because the reader needs to adapt to its particular pace.

Despite these criticisms, I still thought this was a fine novel, and would highly recommend it to fans of Cold Mountain. I've also now been persuaded to check out Frazier's second novel, Thirteen Moons, as it's obvious that his talent wasn't just a flash in the pan. Has anyone else read this? What did you think, if so?

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