All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe.
One of the final and most profound statements made in this thoroughly fascinating book, the above sentence, written by the author as part of a footnote within the story itself, provides a nearly complete summary of In the Lake of the Woods. A mystery without answers, in which mysteries pile up on top of a each other, mysteries that you keep expecting to tumble down like the landslide narrator Jim Wade experiences, yet somehow stay perfectly balanced from page one to page 303.
Jim Wade is a Vietnam Vet, a man full of secrets, a man who loves his wife with an all consuming passion, yet also ambitious, with plans to one day be a US Senator. Yet when crimes he commited as part of Charlie Company during the war come to light, his career is over. There will be no second chances, no next time, so broke and desperate, he and his wife Kathy hole up in a cabin in the northermost extremity of Minnesota, and it is there that she vanishes, without a trace. Did she leave on her on? Did he kill her? Or was it all just a vanishing act, like the magic tricks Wade is so fond of?
I am blown away by this novel. I am not a person for mysteries, but I fell in love with Tim O'Brien's writing after reading The Things They Carried, so I added this one to my list. Yet I delayed in reading it. Could it measure up to a book that has become one of my all-time favorites or would it be a sad disappointment? The answer to that question, is that not only did it live up his other novel, it may have even exceeded it.
There were parts of this book, like The Things They Carried, that were nearly impossible to read. The horror of the Vietnam War is one that makes it so difficult to comprehend on a grand scale, and I didn't even live through it. Yet, O'Brien managed to make the modern day mystery stand up and hold it's own against the nightmares that both he and his character Wade remember throughout the book. I was fascinated by the way that the story was broken up, alternating between Wade's life, his memories of Vietnam, his theories as to what could have happened, and chapters of evidence that included quotes from both characters in the book and from real books and newspaper clippings about people as varied as Custer, Nixon, Freud, and Ambrose Bierce. O'Brien managed to integrate these very different aspects of his story seemlessly, even including footnotes in his own voice, both related to the story and to his own time in Vietnam. I can only say that this book has definitely earned itself a permenant place both on my bookshelf and in my heart.