“You know, I think politics and magic were almost the same thing for him. Transformations — that’s part of it — trying to change things. When you think about it, magicians and politicians are basically control freaks.”

Photo by Sara Zimmermann

“In The Lake Of The Woods” has become an odd favorite of mine. This novel doesn’t particularly bring me joy or comfort, but it has left me with a lasting intrigue which inspires me to revisit it frequently. Tim O’Brien is a knowledgeable author whose firsthand account of the fictionalized subject matter lends itself to a very genuine and believable story. The subject of war (namely, the Vietnam War) is heavy in this novel, and Tim O’Brien is a veteran. Many people may know his name from his novel, “The Things They Carried,” which is based on some of his experiences in the 23rd Infantry Division. I have read “In The Lake Of The Woods” several times now and I have suggested it to many people.

“The Lake Of The Woods” owes a lot of its magic to the protagonist, John Wade, who happens to have a strange fascination with magicians and tricks. This is only one of the many somewhat bizarre facets of John Wade, who is a politician running for higher public office. His character is very appealing, but he is surrounded by an air of mystery from the very beginning. He is a driven if not troubled man, and he seems to have high chances and an already impressive history under his belt. The plot of the novel doesn’t hinge on this, though. Instead, the plot immediately kicks off when the public is informed of war crimes involving John Wade. Instantly, whatever expectations readers have change into something completely unpredictable. John’s wife goes missing and no one has a clue about what happened. From this point on, Tim O’Brien drags readers down a very dark and convoluted path of twisted outcomes and possibilities.

One of the other strengths of the novel is its eerie tone. Even the mundane seems heavy and tense with Tim O’Brien’s touch. Things that shouldn’t be unusual seem horrific by nature. Readers will be left with a combination of fascination and distrust in the characters, the plot and their own mind. Much of the true grittiness of the novel lies within the imagination. Tim O’Brien does a fantastic job of creating horror with implication — he tells you just enough to lead your mind in uncomfortable directions, and it is up to the reader to imagine the worst.

What makes this novel interesting is its alternating points of view. The story is told in many ways and it is not always linear. In this way, reading this novel doesn’t feel much different from solving a puzzle. The story is told by John Wade (both past and present) and by many of the people involved in his life, be it through testimonial transcripts, flashbacks or interviews. The reader must ultimately pick who to believe and which story to trust. This is by no means an easy feat, and many people may not want to believe some of the things they are reading.

I suggest this novel to anyone who likes to have their minds challenged and who also finds mysteries to be satisfying. The book is heavy with politics, magic and war, but readers need little knowledge or interest in those topics to enjoy the experience. The real point of “In the Lake Of the Woods” I believe is to examine the conscience and the darkness of relationships. The truest form of horror I’ve found is in what real people can do to each other. Tim O’Brien doesn’t need ghosts or ghouls to show what it’s like for someone to be haunted.

Rate: 5/5 stars