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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Alice Jolly

North Woods by Daniel Mason review – an epic of American lives

Reflections on the natural world in North Woods
Reflections on the natural world in North Woods. Photograph: Cappi Thompson/Getty Images

American novelist and doctor Daniel Mason is already well known for his wonderfully atmospheric historical novels The Piano Tuner and The Winter Soldier. North Woods sees him explore innovative approaches to historical fiction, and even surpasses those earlier books. The narrative begins in the 1760s and continues through to the present day – and then moves further into some undated moment in the future. It tells the story of a “remote station of the north woods” in Massachusetts, and a lemon-yellow house with a tall black door that is built in this “hilly, snow-dusted country” which lies towards “sun’s fall”.

The story is told in fragments that capture the lives of the inhabitants of this place. They include a young couple who have fled a Puritan colony, Native Americans defending their territories and an English soldier who decides to give up “the smell of gunpowder” and devote himself entirely to apples. There are also jealous sisters, a man engaged in “Southern business” (hunting for a runaway slave) and a hunter who hires a medium to lay ghosts to rest. His attempt fails entirely because, for Mason, history is raucous and rowdy. No character in his novel is ever entirely dead. All reappear repeatedly – and their echoes are felt in the text.

Throughout these many narratives Mason shows how random objects – books, rings, stones, paintings – are preserved despite disruption. But it is not only human life that endures and is resurrected. Non-human actors also play their roles – lusty beetles, spores, seeds, logs and even a wild cat. The fate of humans and the processes of the natural world are inextricably linked. The apple orchard that lies at the centre of the novel starts with a seed which “gently parts the fifth and sixth ribs” of a dead English soldier. The Osgood Wonder, the apple tree that grows from this seed, has “deep English roots” and becomes “the nonpareil of the district”. But after a squirrel drops a single acorn, the orchards are gradually “swallowed up by oak and chestnut”. The chestnuts then fall prey to a spore, which is shaken from a dog’s coat and goes on to lay waste half the chestnut forests of New England. Later, young lovers from out of the area bring firewood to the now deserted house. Enjoying days of glorious sex, they are unaware that one of the logs in the boot of their car contains “the larvae of a scolytid beetle overwintering within the bark”. Soon, “the beetle has locked his mate in lust”. This coupling leads to the spread of Dutch elm disease: “It is logs and beetles all the way back.”

Mason tells these proliferating stories through a patchwork of different texts – a book of “Apple Lore”, calendars, ballads, footnotes, letters, case notes, an Address to an Historical Society. These texts are also interspersed with images of paintings, photographs and fragments of musical scores. This might sound chaotic, and the reader does have to work to keep up. Narrative batons are picked up and dropped at a dizzying speed. Occasionally, the reader worries that Mason is about to be buried under his own flamboyance. But part of the joy of this book is exactly that feeling of risk and reach.

Perhaps the most moving section relates to Robert, a schizophrenic who lives in the house in the early years of the 20th century and who is “interested in the enumeration of what seemed like every single tree and stone” in the forest. When Robert’s sister fails to believe in his visions, he makes films to record the ghosts of past inhabitants. When his sister returns, many years after Robert’s death, she plays them and sees nothing “but the gentle motions of a forest that no longer was”. She also remembers how Robert believed that by walking through the forest and “stitching” with his footsteps, he could “repair” the world.

This idea of “stitching” seems to mirror Mason’s own work in writing this novel. All he is doing is describing the history of a small patch of woodland. Yet through some strange alchemy he shows how death is “not only the cessation of life, but vast worlds of significance”. Inevitably, as the story progresses the human impact on the natural world grows darker. But this is not a melancholy book. “To understand the world as something other than a tale of loss is to see it as a tale of change.” No matter the extent of the destruction, “it all begins again”. This is a brave and original book, which invents its own form. It is both intimate and epic, playful and serious. To read it is to travel to the limits of what the novel can do.

North Woods by Daniel Mason is published by John Murray (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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