Published by Hodder & Stoughton and Random House
“Luce’s new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent.”
“Nothing changes what already happened. It will always have happened. You either let it break you down or you don’t.”
Luce is the caretaker of an almost abandoned lodge in a forest by a lake, near the town in which she grew up. She lives on her own in the large building, and her life has taken on a rhythm that echoes the seasons. Luce is paid a small stipend, but she barely needs any money.
Her peaceful life is about to be upended. She takes in the orphaned children of her sister Lily. The twins, Dolores and Frank, have been traumatized: they have witnessed their mother’s murder by her violent partner, Bud. Luce suspects that Bud was also violent towards the twins. The twins are almost feral: at war with the world, they tend to set things on fire, seem to have no feeling for anyone or anything, and do not speak, but somehow manage to communicate with each other.
Luce is determined to break through to the children. She realizes that underneath their hardened exterior, they are just a couple of scared kids.
However, Bud isn’t done with the family, not just yet. He has been cleared of murder, thanks to a canny lawyer who dismisses the twins—who have retreated into silence—as “retarded”. Bud had stolen some money. Lily had taken the money from him, which is why he killed her. But when he went back to the house to look for the money, there was no sign of it. Bud is convinced that the twins have taken it. Not to mention the fact that they also witnessed the murder, which could prove troublesome if they start talking again.
Bud finds his way to the town, and Dolores and Frank are not safe anymore.
What I love most about this book is the way the twins are depicted. In the beginning, they are scary, living by their own rules and not caring who or what they destroyed. When the twins arrive at the lodge, Luce notices that they don’t look directly at anyone. “Predatory, with their eyes very much in the fronts of their faces and scoping their surroundings for whatever next prospect might present itself, but not wanting to spook anybody. Not yet.”
Their anger is a defence against a world that holds nasty surprises, a world where their mother could get killed before their eyes. Slowly, as Luce wins their trust, refusing to give up on them, the twins start to relax and offer a glimpse of the children they once were. There is a lovely scene when they are in bed, and Luce reads them a bedtime story called The Three Billy Goats Gruff.
“The children quivered and drew the quilt up to their noses, and Luce could feel them squirming towards her, their feet reaching under the covers to touch her hip where she sat on the edge of the bed. When the big goat laid the troll low, they drew a deep breath and let it out slow. By the third night, she had them joining her to shout the final lines. Snip, snap, snout. This tale’s told out.” It felt like a triumph, a ray of hope.
Charles Frazier picks up the pace as the story moves on. Towards the end, I could not put the book down. I believed in these characters: they are nuanced and feel very real. Luce is a force to be reckoned with: scarred, solitary, fiercely independent but also someone with understanding and empathy.
This is a beautifully written book, which is what I’ve come to expect from Frazier. His description of nature is evocative. The following is a passage from Luce’s life before the outside world intervened:
“She sipped Scotch considerably older than she was, the taste of time in its passing, in harmony with the outer world, where poplars were already half bare and long grasses drooped burnt from the first frost. The call of an evening bird, and the sun low. Bands of lavender and slate clouds moving against a metallic sky, denoting the passage of autumn. Fallen leaves blown onto the porch. The planet racking around again toward winter.”
The book is about damaged people: not just the children, but also Luce, who fled the town after she was raped as a young woman by a man who was once her schoolteacher.
Nightwoods is a story about how life can hurt you but also give you a chance to heal.