Charles Frazier sets his novels in backwoods North Carolina. His first novel, Cold Mountain, was set during the Civil War. His second, Thirteen Moons, went further back to the treatment of the Cherokee in the earlier part of the 19th century. Nightwoods, his third, deals with more recent times, a small mountain town in the early 1960’s.
Luce is a troubled young woman with a traumatized past who has taken up a secluded life as a caretaker for an old disused lodge across the lake from town. She is unprepared when a social worker brings her the young twin children of her murdered sister Lily, an almost feral boy and girl who refuse to speak and like to start fires.
Stubblefield is lazing away his life on the coast of Florida when he learns his grandfather has died and left him, aside from a load of debt, the lodge and a road house and a considerable number of acres on the mountain. When he goes to inspect the lodge, he is immediately smitten by the skittish Luce.
Trouble is on the way, which we know from the beginning of the novel. Bud, the husband and murderer of Luce’s sister Lily has been released from prison because of a hung jury. He is on his way to town in search of the money he stole, which he gave to Lily one night when he was drunk and she refused to give back to him. He beat her to death trying to get her to tell him where it is, and now he thinks the children know.
This novel is at times tender, as Luce blindly copes with the two damaged children in the best way she can, instinctively treating them with delicacy and kindness. At the same time, the violent Bud resembles a character from a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard novel, almost comic at times in his psychopathic ineptitude.
The result is an enthralling novel that is both a love story, not just between its characters but with the beauty of nature, and a thriller with a true feeling of danger. As usual with Frazier, the novel is wonderfully well written, with entrancing descriptions of nature.