Only a daring and confident writer (or a misguided one) would write a novel that carries the reader along, building an overwhelming sense of suspense and uncertainty, and then leave what seems to be the major story question unresolved.
That writer is Tim O’Brien. His The Things They Carried is on my list of The Most Important Novels in My LIfe. In the Lake of the Woods could easily be on that list. I find the novel’s inventive, disturbing, and mysterious narrative to be completely mesmerizing, beginning to end.
A former soldier, O’Brien built a literary reputation writing about the Vietnam War, which he participated in. Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried both had the feel of autofiction, a heavy blend of personal experience and invention. In the Lake of the Woods feels inventive, inspired at some level by experience.
In the novel, John Wade, who is running in a primary for a U.S. Senate seat, crashes and burns when the news is discovered and leaked by his opponent that Wade participated in the Thuan Yen massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers during the war (aka, Mai Lai). He covered up his role and bore his secret for more than twenty years.
Now, disgraced and defeated in the primary and the media, John and his wife, Kathy, retreat to a small cabin in northern Minnesota on the Lake of the Woods to regroup and consider what kind of future they have together. It’s a difficult crossroads to confront.
Within a few days, Kathy is gone. Disappeared. No one knows what’s happened to her.
The novel weaves three distinct narrative threads. One is a straight timeline that covers John’s lonely childhood, his becoming a magician, his obsessive relationship with Kathy, Vietnam, his rise through politics, his sudden fall, and law enforcement’s search for Kathy and scrutiny of Wade after her disappearance. Another thread is a series of chapters titled “Hypothesis” in which various possibilities for Kathy’s disappearance are considered: she ran off to escape her mass killer husband, got into an accident on the lake either in a motorboat or swimming, or John killed and disposed of her. The third thread, called “Evidence,” contains snippets of interviews with his campaign manager, Kathy’s sister, the police, other participants in the massacre, and others who knew John and Kathy.
Like the magician John Wade, O’Brien expertly keeps his balls in the air, his sleight of hand is clever, and he builds tension and a sense of dread. We crave to know what happened to Kathy and why, but the answers aren’t easy—just like the massacre of an entire village of women, children, and elderly can never be fully understood.
This is a unique Twilight-zone novel, a haunting work of literature, not for everyone, but definitely for me.