Location, location, location. Daniel Mason’s magnificent fifth novel, North Woods, is the story of a place – a yellow house deep in the woods of western Massachusetts – and its motley succession of occupants, human and otherwise, who leave their mark on the property over the course of four centuries.
It begins with two young lovers who, “abandoning their Puritan yokes… fled to… their private Arcadia,” Mason writes. “They had arrived there in the cool of June, chased from the village by its inhabitants, tracing the path of the deer through the forest, the valleys, the fern groves and the trembling peat bogs… Gone is England, the colony is over.”
We read of what happened to this woman decades later in the anonymous letter of a “night maid,” who reported that “heathens” had come “in great numbers,” setting fire to the stockades and killing her family. and its neighbors. Captured with her baby, the servant tells how she was taken to a log and stone house under a mountain and cared for by an old woman with an iron crucifix around her neck and a precious Bible – part of the pair of young lovers . — who was a friend of the Indian who spared the neighbor. When vengeful British soldiers arrive, the old woman does what she can to protect her friends.
North Woods impressively manages to balance both the narrow and the long view, focusing intimately on the lives of each of the house’s inhabitants, while broadly encompassing American history, natural history, the incessant march of time and the cycle of the seasons.
The novel is above all a story of ephemerality and succession, of the way time accumulates in layers, like sedimentary soil. Many of Mason’s characters and creatures meet violent ends. They die by axes, by gunshots, by exposure, by heart attacks and heartache, by car accidents, by mountain lions known as catamounts. The forest also suffers, savagely cleared for grazing, whipped by winds, incinerated by forest fires. Beloved ash, beech, chestnut, elm and hemlock trees are being destroyed by various fungi, insects and other invasive pathogens. The present is haunted by the past, literally and figuratively.
A postdoctoral researcher studying “spring ephemerals – deep woodland flowers that bloomed briefly in fleeting sunlight before the trees fell and the canopy closed” – is a late addition to Mason’s extensive cast . She sums up the novel’s overall theme perfectly: “The only way to understand the world as anything other than a story of loss is to see it as a story of change.” »
One of the delights of North Woods is the great variety of Mason’s characters. These include an apple-obsessed orchardist fighting on the wrong side of the Revolutionary War, and his twin daughters, one fierce, the other in love; a lonely and withdrawn naturalist painter who connects only too briefly with his ideal soul mate; a young black mother fleeing slavery and bounty hunters; a conjurer; a schizophrenic whose mother corresponds with inmates while her son hallucinates about the house’s former inhabitants; a journalist for True crime review; a recently widowed history buff, excluded from his historical society for sexual misconduct.
But it’s the elegance with which Mason tells and ties these stories into 12 chapters (each roughly tied to a different month) that truly dazzles. In subsequent sections, he looks back decades to tie up loose ends or posthumously pair up characters whose time on Earth is centuries apart. An example: At a retrospective exhibition of the work of this solitary 19th-century artist, the postdoctoral student – who knows nothing of the artist’s long residence in the yellow house – is fascinated by the intricate details with which he painted healthy trees that she only knew in their dilapidated state.
Mason reinforces the sense of ongoing change through lush descriptions of the natural environment and ghostly presences that, at various times, channel Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Richard Powers’ General history, and George Saunders Lincoln at Bardo. There are “logs covered with mushrooms like turkeys,” he writes, and the humidity of March, with “the bare trees, the mists, the mud like folded slabs of potter’s clay.”
Mason’s medical and psychiatric training illuminates the story of a mid-20th century mental patient facing a possible lobotomy, as well as descriptions of decomposing corpses – reminiscent of Jim Crace’s sensual account of the physical consequences of murder of two zoologists in To be dead (2001).
But even death can be regenerative, as demonstrated by this astonishing passage about the germination of a special variety of apple that emerges from the shallow grave of a British soldier:
“Now, in the place that was once the belly of the man who offered the woman the apple, one of the apple seeds, sheltered in the broken ribcage, breaks its coat and drops a root into the ground, raises a pair of pale green cotyledons. A shoot rises, thickens, seeks the bars of light above it, gently parts the fifth and sixth ribs that once guarded the dead man’s thin heart.
Write down the word skinny. It’s a description that – gently, quietly – separates a great writer from a merely good writer. There is nothing thin about this book, nor about Daniel Mason’s talent.