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A house for the centuries

BOOKS | North Woods is the right book for early fall

Daniel Mason Photo by Paul Stuart

A house for the centuries
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For as long as humans have told stories, we’ve recounted tales of dark forests and ghostly specters and haunted dwelling places. These storytelling elements are so ubiquitous they’ve evolved into literary tropes, genres even, that capture and explore universal themes. By now, we are all familiar with them.

Daniel Mason’s fascinating new novel, North Woods—which chronicles the multicentury story of a single house built deep in the woods of New England—takes advantage of our familiarity with these tropes by packaging them in an uncommon fashion.

His story is narrated from the various perspectives of the people who dwell in it, sometimes in the form of diaries or letters, other times through free indirect discourse or first-person narrative, poems and song lyrics, even the pages of a contemporary true-crime magazine and vintage botanical illustrations. Yet no matter the particularities of the form, the narrators themselves reveal secrets that only the house could know.

What begins as the hiding place for a young Puritan couple evolves into the resting place for a war-weary soldier who discovers the wonders of an apple orchard. From there it becomes the lair of his two spinster daughters as they combat the trials of war and hunger (and each other) before turning itself over to an eccentric procession of characters (scientists, mothers, farmers, hunters) who carry the reader into the present day.

Throughout the centuries the house endures, at times holding on to the secrets of its inhabitants, at times meting them out to the curious. Which is to say, it’s the story of a house haunted by history, by the obsessions and fears and hopes and affections of the men and women who pass under its uncommon shadow.

In the end, the reader is left wondering if unusual characters are drawn to the particular place, or if the place itself renders them unusual.

In the wrong hands North Woods could have been a disaster. It could have been a creative writing assignment gone wrong, a series of exploratory vignettes grafted onto a too-obvious formalistic project. Instead it’s one of the most consistently surprising novels of the year, a book that is self-aware enough to be subtle when it needs to be and direct when necessary.

Mason knows that the various ­traditions into which he is writing each offer their own set of expectations, their own experience for the reader, and he employs their virtues dexterously. It never feels like an experiment because it isn’t one. Mason is too interested in the wonders of the human soul to lose the thread. North Woods may be a sprawling novel, but Mason never plays fast and loose with his characters. They’re too alive for that, in part because the house itself is, too.

It’s the right book for early fall, when the leaves are changing and the air is crisp and the nighttime shadows begin to arouse the imagination. When the age-old instinct for something a ­little spooky rears its head.

David Kern

David Kern and his wife, Bethany, own Goldberry Books in Concord, N.C., an indie bookstore that focuses on selling new and used books that are True, Good, and Beautiful. He’s also the co-host of Close Reads and Withywindle, two bookish podcasts, the latter of which is for kids.


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