IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS by Tim O’Brien (First published 1995)

itlw3Twenty years on from his debut non-fiction work – If I Die In A Combat Zone – this novel by Tim O’Brien shows that the author is still burdened by the memories of his year spent in Vietnam.

The tale begins as a study of a marriage in which whatever glow there once was has long since faded.

We meet democratic politician John Wade and his wife who are holed up in a remote cabin, escaping the public humiliation of a heavy electoral defeat.

His previously high standing with the voters has nosedived after his involvement in the atrocities at Mai Lai is exposed. Kathy never seems entirely sympathetic to his plight.

Prior to his downfall she had had a brief fling with her dentist and her sudden disappearance doesn’t initially cause him great concern.

Eventually he wakes up to the idea that something bad may have happened to her. In a series of hypotheses, possible scenarios are laid out but early on O’Brien warns the reader that we will never be told what really became of her.

The ‘evidence’ chapters mix real quotes with fictional ones but these increasingly strike you as a contrived series of red herrings. It’s as if O’Brien started out with the notion of writing a mystery story then got bored with the idea.

This is a shaggy dog story, albeit one with adult themes. As such,  the author effectively removes most reasons to keep on reading.

On top of this, we quickly get to realize that the man Kathy left behind was a jerk before his wartime traumas and is an even bigger jerk after.

A story like this demands that you should feel a degree of sympathy for one or other of this ill-fated couple but redeeming factors in both are in short supply. There are half-baked hints that she may have been murdered but knowing that you will never know doesn’t exactly make this into much of a page turner.

The would-be drama is offset by prolonged flashbacks to the horrors of war that don’t properly belong here.

Tim O’Brien writes succinctly but the plot goes off at too many tangents and leaves all the interesting questions dangling.