Daniel Mason’s North Woods begins with an epigraph from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Notebooks (“…to build a fire on Ararat with the remnants of the ark”), and its prologue parachutes us straight into the heart of Hawthorne Country: New England at the time of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1628-1691). A passionate man and woman – star-crossed lovers! – flee the colony’s silly hats and puritanical censure. They tumble in the hedgerows. “[H]e was waiting for her, winged in a damp blanket which he wrapped around her, lowering her to the earth.” It’s The Scarlet Letter with the sexy bits put in. Of course The Scarlet Letter only worked because Hawthorne left the sexy bits out, but never mind that for now.
The prose, in these opening pages, clearly wants you to swoon and call it “lush”. But it comes on too strong and instead compels you to back away in mild embarrassment. “He was mad, she thought, naked but for his scraps of clothing, his axe, his clucking hen. And how he talked! Of Flora, the dominion of the toad and muck-clam, the starscapes of the fireflies, the reign of wolf and bear and bloom of mold.” The number of times you should use the phrase “the starscapes of the fireflies” in your novel is zero. Fireflies do not make starscapes. Fireflies move around, and stars, from our subjective vantage, don’t.
All very worrying, and we’re still on page four. But park your qualms for now. North Woods is one of those novels that keeps jumping forward in time, switching fictional modes with each leap. It’s the sort of stunt that tests both the novelist’s virtuosity and the reader’s goodwill. Can you stay glued to a novel if its protagonist is not a human being but a house?
The problem with the “spanning many centuries” novel is that the novel, as a form, is about human psychology, and human psychology does not operate at the spanning-many-centuries level
The house at the heart of North Woods occupies a vaguely located spot in the woods of northern Massachusetts. Built originally by the star-crossed Puritans, it shelters successively an English soldier who retires to keep an orchard; the orchard-keeper’s twin daughters, Alice and Mary; a painter, William Henry Theale, who discovers that his feelings for his friend, the writer Erasmus Nash, are not merely platonic; the Farnsworths, entrepreneur hoteliers, who are visited firstly by the ghosts of William and Erasmus and secondly by Anastasia Rossi, fraudulent psychic (this is the best bit); Lillian and her son Robert, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia; Helen, Robert’s brother, an academic; and Morris Lakeman, lonely amateur historian. There is also a cutesy interlude done from the point of view of a male elm bark beetle in the midst of a “sex-romp” (“He scuttled forward, gently tapped her sides with his antennae”).
The problem with the “spanning many centuries” novel is that the novel, as a form, is about human psychology, and human psychology does not operate at the spanning-many-centuries level (it operates at the level of the lifetime and the moment). Such a novel wants us to think about our place in history but tends to conceive of history as merely a sequence of stylistic changes. For a writer interested in, precisely, stylistic changes, the genre has clear attractions, and Mason commands an impressive range of fictional modes: he convincingly pastiches a 1650s captivity narrative, the memoirs of a traumatised English soldier, a 1950s pulp true-crime magazine and so on. There is lots of fancy prose here; the structure, which is basically that of a ghost story, is elaborated with plenty of admirable filigree.
But there are also bits of dry rot in the haunted timber. Minor characters are cartoons. So, at points, are major ones. “[T]he Minister was seized mid-lesson by his realisation that Lot’s wife was a salt lick and dismissed the children so that he could work out the implications of his discovery” – this is absolutely unpersuasive. The apple-grower’s twin daughters, Alice and Mary, are so alike that “there were times, passing before a mirror, or staring down into a quiet pool, that one might smile at the image in greeting.”
According to taste, you will find these last few pages either epic or evasive
This line called forth, from one reader at least, a Twitterish “Didn’t happen.” Mistaking your reflection for your twin? It’s a sentimental notion. Sentimental notions are pleasant, but they seduce us into betraying reality. You might say, this is a ghost story, it hinges on magic, that is to say on notions like a twin briefly fooled by her own reflection. But the best ghost stories hinge not on magic but on the real: the thing that scares us most of all.
This sentimentality in minor matters is of a piece with the novel’s shaping tendency to see the past as a sequence of stylistic changes. To see the past thusly is to patronise it for not being the present – also a sentimental notion. “Mary […] thought that there really should be a word for this particular kind of explaining boys did to girls.” Alas, women of the 19th century, that you did not have Rebecca Solnit around to do your thinking for you.
That enigmatic epigraph from Hawthorne – the one about burning the ark on Ararat – pays off in the novel’s closing paragraphs. According to taste, you will find these last few pages either epic or evasive. What’s missing from them is what’s missing from the rest of this frustrating, involving, virtuoso, sentimental novel: the irreplaceable middle ground where, for most of us, most of the time, actual human life takes place.