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[415] In the Lake of the Woods – Tim O’Brien

” In the dim light she seemed to be smiling at something, or half smiling, a thumb curled alongside her nose. It occurred to him that he should wake her. Yes, a kiss, and then confess to the shame he felt: how defeat had bled into his bones and made him crazy with hurt. He should’ve told her about the mirrors in his head. He should’ve talked about the special burden of villainy, the ghosts at Thuan yen, the strain of his dreams. ” (8,50)

In the Lake of the Woods is a disturbing post-Vietnam mystery charged with haunting ambiguity. It explores the Vietnam aftermath, in the form of a married couple dancing on the precipice of disintegration—in their marriage and prospect of life, with all the past deceits of their lives suddenly coming unraveled. The book opens with a US Senate election, in which a politician’s carefully built career is ruined overnight by revelations of his wartime participation in a village massacre in Vietnam.

In the darkness it did not matter that these things were expensive and impossible. It was a terrible time in their lives and they wanted desperately to be happy. They wanted happiness without knowing what it was, or where to look, which made them want it all the more. (1,2)

Following a major loss that terminates his career during a bid for the Senate, John Wade and his wife rent an old yellow cottage in the timber at the edge of the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota. All they want is for lives to be good again, but there’s the emptiness of disbelief. Amid the solitude of the wood and hypnotic drone of the water, they wish to rekindle a mutual passion, but Wade’s life becomes irrevocably undone by the sudden disappearance of his wife Kathy.

Sorcerer had his own secrets.
PFC Weatherby, that was one. Another was how much he loved the place—Vietnam—how it felt like home. And there was the deepest secret of all, which was the secret of Thuan Yen, so secret that he sometimes kept it secret from himself. (10,73)

In the Lake of the Woods uses varied narrative structure techniques to create a story and its characters. A multiple of voices reveal Wade’s secret past, Kathy’s struggle as the political wife, and the changing dynamics of the marriage. Following Kathy’s disappearance, O’Brien turns the mystery from inside out, replacing answers with plausible hypotheses as he provides a harrowing glimpse of a marriage that has built upon deception. It’s a love story, a decayed marriage, with deferred dreams and withheld intimacies. As the book builds up a burning desire for resolution, tension mounted, the actions steer the opposite direction, toward doubts and uncertainty. Their secrets, which render an ever-widening distance between the life they wanted and the life they had, lead to the dark, and beyond this dark there is only maybe. There is really no end to this novel, just a void of things missing, some inconclusiveness of conclusion. However dissatisfying this ambiguity might be, O’Brien is not to blame but the human heart. The unadorned prose is both lyrical and contemplative.

It was an echo, partly. But inside the echo were sounds not quite their own—a kind of threnody, a weeping, something melodic and sad. They would sometimes stop to listen, but the sound was never there when listened for. It mixed with the night. There were stirrings all around them, things seen, things not seen, which was in the nature of the dark. (26,267)

What the novel evokes is a horrifying human experience that wrecked one’s life for good. By keeping silent, and pretending there is no history, the consequence can be more excruciating and hurtful to the ones we love than death itself.

303 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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17 Responses

  1. I read this in college and remember plowing through this book deep into the night and then feeling too creeped out and jumbled up to sleep. I love how, as the story progresses, the narrative sort of falls apart, too. O’Brien is a master for sure.

    • The mystery of the wife’s disappearance just keeps me plowing the book. Although the ending was ambiguous, I am very satisfied. It just reminds that not everything in life has an answer.

  2. I really enjoyed this book. We’ve added a link to your review at War Through the Generations.

    • This is my second O’Brien novel after The Things They Carried. He really has a knack to write about the emotional trauma that affects generations after the war.

  3. Great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This seems like a book I’d be able to get more into than The Things They Carried, so I’ll have to check it out.

    • I like this one even better. What the novel evokes is a horrifying human experience that wrecked one’s life for good. By keeping silent, and pretending there is no history, the consequence can be more excruciating and hurtful to the ones we love than death itself.

  4. this sounds like a book that my oldest son would enjoy. His tastes are very similar to yours. I’m going to send him a link! 😀

  5. I read this book well over a decade ago, and your review makes me want to read it again immediately. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

    • This goes straight to the re-read pile. The writing is just so lyrical and layered. O’Brien deftly blurs reality and hypothesis, but without making the story confusing.

  6. This has been on my list to read a long time. I want my son to read this too. He loved The Things They Carried.

    • Tim O’Brien has become a favorite overnight when I was halfway through The Things They Carried. I like (love) In the Lake of the Woods even more because the emotional trauma and mystery of human heart are just right up my alley.

  7. I just loaned The Things They Carried to my dad (we both loved the book) and I have this one on my shelf but I had no idea what it was about. We were both wondering if his other books discussed or focused on Vietnam.

    I have to admit that if done nicely an ambiguous ending–or a book with no ending–actually works for me. Sounds like I need to stop ignoring this one!

    • I second about the an ambiguous ending well done. He doesn’t leave any angle unexplored between the two characters. But yet at the end there are possibilities. We are left to our imagination and understanding of their relationship. Great dynamics.

  8. […] In the Lake of the Woods Tim O’Brien Very rarely does a novel with ambivalent ending finds favor in me, but it is the ambivalence of this novel about the aftermath of war that makes it shine. It’s almost the only best way to tell the story. O’Brien turns the mystery from inside out, replacing answers with plausible hypotheses as he provides a harrowing glimpse of a marriage that has built upon deception. It’s a love story, a decayed marriage, with deferred dreams and withheld intimacies. […]

  9. […] protest the suffocating environment that your mother impose on all of you? To Wade and Kathy from In the Lake of the Woods: Did Kathy really disappear? Or is it a show you put on to escape the scandal? To Clive and Vernon […]

  10. Thank you for this excellent review, Matthew. Tim O’Brien is one of my favorite writers — I’ve read four of his books now [just finished Tomcat in Love, it was EXCELLENT] and I definitely look forward to this one.
    Especially after your favorable review.
    Cheers!

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