Everyone is old in Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods, even the children. To be young seems like a clerical error, a miscarried sum. One’s youth is something to be buried deep in memory’s ledger.

It is the 1950s and Luce, the young heroine, is the caretaker of an old lodge in Frazier’s habitual stomping ground of North Carolina. When her sister Lily is murdered, she agrees to care for her mute, traumatised twins. But Lily’s killer, her husband Bud, is missing a hoard of cash and believes the children have it. So begins a slow, tense and curiously compelling chase.

Two orphans being pursued by a psychopath in search of a fortune may remind the reader of Charles Laughton’s dream-like film, The Night of the Hunter (1955). However, it is something of a convention that any chase must have movement, and for much of Nightwoods Frazier bucks this seemingly vital tradition. Here the physical chase is almost static, more like a noose tightening than a fuse being lit. The true pursuit and evasion take place within the characters themselves.

Yearning for a lost past has long been one of Frazier’s motifs. In Cold Mountain, the memory of the hero’s true love draws him on an odyssey through the landscape of the American civil war. In Nightwoods, however, the past is something to run scared from. The curse of memory, wreathed in familial abandonment, rape and murder, follows heavy on the characters’ heels. The only way to stay ahead of it is by living at the very front end of the present.

Luce does this by isolating herself, cutting herself off from both people and modern convenience. The orphaned twins set endless fires, seeming to find comfort in the flames. The war-scarred town cop, Lit, seeks out amphetamines to fuel bursts of violence. Even the murderer, Bud, seeks to exculpate the memory of his old crimes through the execution of newer ones. Only Stubblefield, the new owner of Luce’s lodge and a man of “unrealized potential” seems to be able to pluck joy out of memory.

The backdrop to Nightwoods will be immediately familiar to readers of Frazier’s other novels. It is a land where women don’t cry, men don’t laugh and the landscape is cruelly indifferent to human life: “Your existence was incidental. Nature didn’t require anything at all other than the bare minimum deal in return for life. Be born. Die.” It’s Walden by way of Cormac McCarthy, a bleak southern Gothic landscape that Frazier describes in a stark language of elision.

So deep is the dark mood that Frazier conjures that when Luce starts to thaw under the attentions of Stubblefield the sudden burst of joy is as shocking as any violence. As Frazier’s characters hack their way out of their interior thickets and meet each other the very act of connecting allows them to unburden themselves of their past and for a brief, holy moment be free.

Similarly, although Frazier keeps his canvas small, colourful picaresque moments intrude. The itinerant calligrapher, the music teacher who sleeps in his car, the hunting party lost in tales of youth. It’s a typically nuanced evocation of a small southern town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and especially their history.

When, after slowly cranking the tension for two-thirds of the book, the physical chase does finally begin it is a peculiar one. Frazier seems more concerned with describing the symmetry of a sprig of balsam or the tread of a foot in fresh snow than with the life-and-death struggle of his protagonists, who seem to dissolve and dissipate into the woodscape. The actual denouement happens almost in passing. Indeed such is this strange fade from human concerns to natural ones that one wonders if Frazier’s next book will rid itself of human characters all together and simply tell the story of the wind passing through the trees, perhaps by a simple flipping of its pages.

George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers)

Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier, Sceptre, RRP£17.99, 272 pages

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