Sceptre £17.99, 304pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Nightwoods, By Charles Frazier

When your debut (Cold Mountain, 1997) wins the National Book Award and is made into an Oscar-winning film, and your second novel (Thirteen Moons, 2006) receives similar eulogies, a touch of performance anxiety might be expected. But Charles Frazier's third novel is as accomplished as his first two, while casting a knowing glance towards the big screen.

The location and premise are immediately compelling. It is a decade or two after the end of the Second World War. A young woman, Luce, lives alone as caretaker of an old lodge in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Her family background is broken – an alcoholic mother who abandoned her two daughters; a father caught up in his devastating memories of the war. Luce's content, if lonely, routine implodes when her sister Lily is murdered by her second husband, Bud.

Lily's young twins from her previous widowed marriage move in with Luce, mute as a result of the trauma. But unknown to Luce, Bud has escaped conviction due to the skills of a wily lawyer, and is intent on hunting down the stash of robbed cash Lily hid before he killed her. The only souls who may know the whereabouts of the money are the twins. Simultaneously (and conveniently for the inevitable film), the eligible grandson of the deceased caretaker of the lodge, Stubblefield, is heading to look over his new inheritance.

In anyone else's hands, this might turn out to be a gripping but ultimately forgettable thriller. Frazier, however, is a writer whose spare prose paradoxically oozes atmosphere – you can almost smell the verdant pine trees and hear the crack of twigs underfoot. The history of the place – Cherokee Indians turfed out by Spaniards and then American settlers – wafts through, adding a richness and depth. Whether of landscapes, customs or people, Frazier's perception is acute: "The day the children came was high summer, the sky thick with humidity and the surface of the lake flat and iron blue. On the far side, mountains layered above the town, hazing upward in shades of olive until they became lost in the pale grey sky."

The similes are as majestic as the vistas: when Luce's old-lady friend sings songs of maidens being killed, "love and murder and possession fit tight against one another as an outgrown wedding band on a swollen finger".

Vulnerable children are notoriously difficult to portray in fiction without sentimentality or bathos. Frazier's stoical approach is dignified yet conjures up disturbing images. When the twins hide in a dangerous spot on the mountain where one step would hurtle them to their deaths, "The stuff they fear is unrelated to a hole in the ground... The horror is other people. The things they think up to do to you."

Some of the action seems designed with the celluloid incarnation rather than plausibility in mind – the serendipity with which love blossoms; the ease with which Bud procures a job as the dry town's procurer of alcohol – but Frazier is sage enough to cast a few obstacles in the way. And beneath the chilling, photogenic story, the writing remains beautiful. A moment of quiet symbolism in the forest captures the heartless rules of nature in which the strong kill the weak at every level: "Under the hemlock, everything lies dark and quiet... Listen hard and you hear a sound like the ticking of many wristwatches, the fall of dead needles, building in tiny increments a deep thousand-year bed to kill weaker things that try to grow underneath." Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones