The main character of "North Woods," it must be said, is wooden. But that's because it's a house.
The conceit of Daniel Mason's novel is it's the history of a Massachusetts home. We meet it in the 17th century, when its single room is built, and move toward the present, as it is added onto, subtracted from, caved in, abandoned and -- most of the time -- cherished.
A Pulitzer Prize finalist for "A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth," Mason opens with a young couple in love, deciding where to build in the middle of a forest: "At the brook, he found a wide, flat stone, pried it from the earth and carried it back into the clearing, where he laid it gently in the soil. Here."
From that tiny decision, a universe is created: dozens of characters, some related to each other and some not. Inventive plots, which find war, murder, scams, innovation, joy and enduring love witnessed by the house.
Mason plays with the form of "North Woods," which includes a chapter in the guise of a poem about a lynx (depicted on the cover, a lynx pops up several times), one that tells a forbidden love story we intuit by reading between the lines of letters, another that purports to be an autobiography, one in which the main character is a sapling, another narrated from the point of view of a beetle, some songs, an almanac excerpt, the logbook of a hard-boiled detective and a newspaper article.
I've probably forgotten a few but you get the idea; although this is Mason's sixth book, he writes with the glee and curiosity of a writing student who was given dozens of varied assignments by his teacher and who nailed every one of them. It's a dazzling high-wire act -- and it's thrilling to read because it never feels like Mason is showing off, just that he thought way outside the box as he searched for the perfect format for each story.
There are a lot of great books coming out this fall but, if I were you, I'd start with this one.