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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]