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Monday, January 05, 2009

In the Lake of the Woods


****½ In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien. General fiction.









I thought I'd gotten this book from Dagny, who met the author when she won an essay contest about The Things They Carried, but she says no. I'm not sure why I bought it, then. I'll probably be passing my copy on to her when she leaves, so I figured I'd better write about it while I still have the book here to refer to.

In the Lake of the Woods is about the disappearance of Kathy Wade. Her husband John was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and has just lost by a landslide after damaging revelations of his actions in the Vietnam war. They've gone to a lakeside cottage to avoid publicity, and after a disturbing night, Kathy disappears.

The story is told in various parts by a narrator who's trying to figure out what happened to Kathy Wade: what's currently happening, flashbacks of John in Vietnam, evidence from various sources, and hypotheses of what might have happened. We know from the start that there is no answer to the mystery, and that is periodically reinforced, so despite how frustrating it is to read a mystery with no solution, I knew what to expect (unlike, apparently, several reviewers *rolling my eyes* --maybe they didn't believe it when then narrator kept saying that nobody knew what happened to Kathy Wade?), and could enjoy speculating which of the hypotheses was true.

One little itty bitty thing I have to get off my chest: why is every single fictional soldier in Charlie Company? Why not Bravo company or Alpha, Delta, or Echo? That's not a criticism of the book, by the way, just of literary conventions that bug me.

While I enjoyed the mental exercise of putting together a complete picture of who John Wade was and what had happened from all the different segments, I never felt truly emotionally engaged. I didn't really care what happened to Kathy Wade. Which, in retrospect, probably made me able to enjoy the book more. If I'd been emotionally invested in the outcome of the mystery, the open-ended-ness of the story would have left me much more frustrated rather than intrigued.

Something that In the Lake of the Woods definitely succeeded at was in making me think--and not just while I was reading it. For example, I'd been thinking that the reader never really got to know Kathy Wade, and only saw superficial opinions from acquaintances, and the biased and slanted opinions of her sister and husband. Then it occurred to me that that's the only way we could have known her, which led me to think about the nature of knowing someone in general.

Probably the biggest issue the book made me contemplate was one a reviewer trashed it for: whether someone can go on to live a normal, even successful life, after being involved in atrocities like the one John Wade participated in during the Vietnam war. The reviewer said it's unequivocally impossible for anyone ever to put that behind them. I think the reviewer is seriously naive and doesn't know human nature very well. Humans have a vast capability for adaptation and self-delusion, and I think that was amply demonstrated in the writing.

In the same vein, it's interesting to read between the lines of John's flashbacks and the comments from others to guess what's truth, what's lies, and what's self-delusion--not just for the mystery of Kathy's disappearance, but for his experiences during the war and for his relationship with his wife.

Whatever prompted me to buy this, I'm glad I did, and I'll keep an eye out for other O'Brien books.

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