In the Lake of the Woods – A Review

Book three for this year was Tim O’Brien’s excellent novel In the Lake of the Woods.


Troubled Vietnam vet John Wade and his wife Kathy retreat to a remote cabin in the woods of Minnesota after John suffers a crushing electoral defeat that heralds the end of what was once a promising political career.  When Kathy disappears soon after, suspicions collect around John, a Vietnam vet who was present at the 1968 My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians.  But the novel is about much more than whether John did or did not kill his wife.  One of the themes of Tim O’Brien’s writing is the effect of war on the soldiers who fight it — the committing of atrocities, the blurring of moral lines, the adaptation (or lack thereof) to extremely violent situations.

Even the narrator seems unsure of whether or not John killed his wife.  The book is written partly as a normal work of fiction, in third person past tense, where we are privy only to John’s inner thoughts, doubts, and imaginings.  But there are sections of the novel that read like research notes, quotes from interviews (real and imaginary) and literature, and complete with footnotes and the musings of our highly unreliable narrator, who may or may not be the real voice of author Tim O’Brien.

As a character, John is awash in moral ambiguity.  He is a charmer, an amateur magician, a troubled former soldier.  He lies to himself constantly.  He loses himself in his lies, forgets that they are lies, forgets what the truth is and that it is the truth.  So the reader has the difficult task of piecing together what the probable truth is, making leaps, making guesses, much the way that the narrator of the novel makes leaps and guesses.  These leaps lead us to question how we can be sure about anything.  Crimes are full of guessing and conjecture and unreliable witnesses who only see part of the picture — much like war, and the carrying out of war, and the private lives of married people, even where it relates to each other, and the constant branding and re-branding of politics, the spin we put on things for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the general public.

Overall, In the Lake of the Woods is a complex, thought-provoking read about war, marriage, guilt, politics, magic, and the lies we tell ourselves to make it through our lives.  I highly recommend it.

I will leave you with an excerpt that, I think, sums the book up pretty well, and I hope that you will read the rest of the novel sometime:

“On occasion, especially when I’m alone, I find myself wondering if these old tattered memories weren’t lifted from someone else’s life, or from a piece of fiction I once read or once heard about.  My own war does not belong to me.  In a peculiar way, even at this very instant, the ordeal of John Wade — the long decades of silence and lies and secrecy — all this has a vivid, living clarity  that seems far more authentic than my own faraway experience.  Maybe that’s what this book is for.  To remind me.  To give me back my vanished life.”