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Book Reviews   |    

by Charles Frazier; New York, Random House, 2011, 259 pages, $26

Reviewed by Allan E. Crandell, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2012; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.631204
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Dr. Crandell is a staff psychiatrist, Indian Health Service, Four Corners Regional Health Center, Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.

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Take one dead sister, her two surviving mute, wild children, a reluctant and newly anointed stepmother, and put them in Appalachia. Add some danger and darkness to spice, and you have Charles Frazier’s third novel, Nightwoods. It is the entwined stories of Luce, her murdered sister, Lily, and Lily’s two feral children. Frazier is, of course, famous for his 1997 National Book Award–winning Cold Mountain and resultant 2003 movie and, perhaps less so, for his second book, Thirteen Moons. In Nightwoods surviving sister Luce has grudgingly become all to Lily’s two children, although Luce “was not much maternal.” Her “new stranger children” are “small, beautiful and violent.” The name “Luce” calls to mind lucency and a certain lightness or clearness, which, if Luce actually possesses these qualities, is buried in a no-nonsense, practical knowledge of the world. This worldview evolves with her increasingly empathic approach to the two increasingly humanized children. Both Lily (evoking a kind of innocent whiteness) and Luce have been victimized and are set against the backdrop of men who violated them. Frazier provides us with numerous allegorical images of fire and light: the children are obsessed with fire, and Luce’s father’s name is “Lit.” Darkness and light are balanced leitmotifs in the book. Dark forest, and darker motives, play against the sanctuary light of the lodge where Luce and the children reside.

This is an unvarnished tale that is regrettably formulaic in its unwinding of the stories that bring the protagonists to the book’s denouement. Bud is a minor-league sociopath but never quite the quintessential bad guy of, say, a book by Elmore Leonard or James Lee Burke. We know early on “whodunit” and are left to suspect who might do what to whom before the book’s end. For all that, it is an engaging story, and the reader feels compelled to race ahead and see how the plot wraps together the tendrils of dread, hope, and suspense.

The children are the personification of repression. As Frazier says, “But mainly she [Luce] began thinking about how bad their bad patch must have been for them to go down so deep where fear and pain couldn’t reach.” Frazier sets out his thesis for the book when he has Luce say, early on, “You try your best to love the world despite obvious flaws in design and execution. And you take care of whatever needy things present themselves to you during your passage through it. Otherwise you’re worthless.” It is a lament for the past, and the book details the transformation of Luce into a powerful, self-defining woman and the children as less repressed, more present. There are things to ponder here for clinicians, but finally one is left wanting—for deeper insights into and more explication of character and motive—as this slim novel veers eerily between protagonists and sets up the final, if telegraphed, resolution.

The reviewer reports no competing interests.




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