By Rob Brunner
Updated September 22, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier’s tough and lovely third novel can be slow going, partly due to its contemplative pace and partly because its dazzling sentences are so meticulously constructed that you find yourself rereading them, trying to unpack their magic. ”You could collapse dead, face in the snow, and nobody know it. Eventually, all that would be left would be some mossy scrag of spine and skull laid out nose down like a shot hog,” Frazier writes, to pick just one marvel of writerly attention. The book feels longer than its 260 pages — a good thing, given what a joy it is to luxuriate in its words.

Or maybe luxuriate is the wrong term. Nightwoods is unsettling stuff, tense and eerie and brutal. At the center of Frazier’s tale — set in Appalachia in the early 1960s — is Luce, a scarred woman with a dark past who’s taken a job as the caretaker of an abandoned old lodge. The solitude suits her. ”What good does the world do you? That was the question Luce had asked herself for three years, and the answer she had arrived at was simple. A distressingly large portion of the world doesn’t do you any good whatsoever. In fact, it does you bad.”

But the outside inevitably intrudes on Luce’s isolated retreat, first in the form of her recently murdered sister’s mute twin children, then with the unexpected appearance of the murderer, Bud, who’s chasing the two terrified young witnesses to his crime. Not surprisingly, things get messy, but Nightwoods is no typical thriller. It hits hard because you come to care so much about the characters, all of them drawn with that precise enchanted prose. By the book’s climactic scenes in the shadowy mountain forest that gives Nightwoods its title, the unhurried, poetic suspense is both difficult to bear and impossible to shake. A