Drew Jameson's Reviews > In the Lake of the Woods

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien
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's review
Jun 03, 2012

it was amazing
Read from May 19 to June 03, 2012

This book has made me shudder at least six times. Astoundingly good. Tim O'Brien has such a subtle mastery, it's almost frightening to read his work. He introduces a seemingly innocuous line on page 10 that sticks out just enough to make you wonder what it's true relevance is, then when he finally reveals it, a hundred pages later, it's devastating. As in The Things They Carried, O'Brien tells a riveting story that reverses back on itself multiple times, and also directly addresses the dilemma of storytelling, and the blurred lines between fiction, non-fiction, and truth. How do you tell a true story? How do you know what's true? Why do we need to uncover secrets we can never truly know?
The story itself is not overly complicated: a promising young politician named John Wade suffers a crushing defeat after a dark secret from his past in Vietnam is revealed. Shortly afterwards, his wife disappears and Wade becomes a suspect. We see the story in the present, curl back to see Wade's experiences in the war, which are as chilling as any I've ever read, his relationship with his wife when it at first seemed to be innocent and loving, and see Wade's painful childhood where he first began to keep secrets from his loved ones and himself. Alternating chapters also hypothesize how events may have played out, while others present pieces of evidence as decontextualized quotes, both from characters testifying about the events in the story, and passages from real world biographies of major political figures and other works on relevant non-fiction. In footnotes that appear mostly in Evidence chapters, the narrator becomes a character, trying as desperately as the reader to tease a thread of meaning and truth from the dark. The narrator's identity remains as ambiguous as what really happened to the wife. This further problematizes the fiction/non-fiction line, as the narrator seems to have much in common with the author, but the other characters are supposedly creations of his imagination. This asks the question, how different is fiction from non-fiction? In both, the author and the reader struggle to find something true, something that is unknowable and unreachable.
The latter half treads water for a time and over-explains ideas that are already clear, but the ending pulls every idea together beautifully.
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04/04/2016 marked as: read

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