THE title and illustration on the cover of this book - a solitary house alongside a lake surrounded by mountains and a dark forest - had my immediate attention. I've been suffering from NDD (nature deficit disorder) and UOL (urban overload) for a while, and the idea of a place where the only light that shines each night is that of the stars, moon on the water, and fireflies appeals greatly.

And that's exactly what Luce, the chief character in Charles Frazier's third novel, Nightwoods, experiences as caretaker of a ramshackle lodge in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. Life hasn't been easy for Luce: her alcoholic, teenage mother, Lola, ran off when she and her sister, Lily, were tiny; her father, Lit, is a messed-up lawman-cum-dopehead; and Luce is troubled by memories of being raped by a teacher as a teenager.

Convinced that you can't count on anyone, she's content with her solitary existence at the lodge. Luce's life is simple. She keeps chickens, grows vegetables, takes long walks, listens to country music and occasionally visits her elderly neighbours, including Maddie, whose horse, Sally, plays an important role in the novel. And, when Luce is obliged to venture into the village, she always takes a book with her, "in case she needs to read a few pages to avoid unwanted conversation".

But then things change. Lily is murdered and her twin children, Dolores and Frank, are dumped with Luce. Although she's unsettled by their unexpected arrival and their odd behaviour - they're mute, and, if left unsupervised, kill the chickens and light fires - their aunt is determined to "take care of whatever needy things present themselves" and sets about doing the best she can for them.

While she suspects Dolores and Frank are "fearful rather than mean", Luce doesn't realise at first that guardianship of the children will extend to protecting them from their former stepfather, Bud, who may have murdered their mother. Bud is acquitted of the crime and believes the traumatised children (and perhaps Luce) know the location of stolen money Lily took from him before she was killed. He wants it back. The tension grows when Bud arrives in the village and, unaware at first that he's his former father-in-law, teams up with the unstable Lit.

Frazier adds romance to the story when Stubblefield, the grandson of the lodge's deceased owner, decides to check out his inheritance and falls for Luce.

Frazier moves skilfully from character to character, ensuring that Luce's steely resolve, Stubblefield's quiet loyalty, Bud's toxic insecurity and the children's feral weirdness are effectively communicated throughout.

Nightwoods, which is set in the early 1960s, is a slow-moving but gripping story of survival and second chances. Like life in the dark forest that gives the book its title, it demands an unhurried approach and many of the sentences are so original and beautifully written that you'll read them at least twice.

The story is unsettling and brutal but also charming and warm. Mostly, it's engaging because you come to care about the characters so much. On occasion, Frazier tends towards melodramatic but his prose is so impressive and his sense of place so vivid that it's impossible not to get caught up in his storytelling. It took me a while to get used to the way he punctuates dialogue but, because his sentences are meticulously structured, his imagery so vivid and his characters so interesting, the technique becomes immaterial.

I couldn't help thinking of Nightwoods as a ready-made movie - perhaps Frazier remembered the success of Cold Mountain as a movie as he wrote - and I've already cast Mia Wasikowska as Luce and William Moseley as Stubblefield. And it's not just the vividness of his writing that makes it cinematic, but also all the action and unexpected turns. At one point, Stubblefield and Luce take the twins on a long road trip to find their runaway grandmother, Lola, in the hope she'll hide them from Bud for a while. The outcome is unexpected. Or is it? You'll have to read Nightwoods to find out. And do it quickly before it becomes a movie.

TITLE: Nightwoods

AUTHOR: Charles Frazier