In the Lake of the Woods is a mystery, but not in the traditional sense. It is also a harrowing look at one man’s tormented psyche after the trauma of war.
It is September 1986. John Wade and his wife Kathy have retreated to a remote cabin on Lake of the Woods in far northern Minnesota after John sustained a brutal defeat in a state senatorial campaign. Wade had been beating his opponent handily until information about Wade’s past surfaced, or perhaps it was only rumor.
One day Kathy disappears. Thinking she is just out for a hike, Wade does nothing for awhile, waiting for her to return. Late that night he goes into the village for help.
This all seems fairly straightforward, but O’Brien periodically presents us with a story about what actually happened, only the story is different each time. As O’Brien reveals more, we learn that Wade was behaving oddly the night before Kathy disappeared–or did she disappear that night? Is she lost, did she leave on her own, did something happen to her? We learn that Wade has taught himself to forget anything he doesn’t want to think about–as if it never happened.
O’Brien shows us the psychological makeup of a man who has undergone a great deal of trauma–whose father committed suicide when he was ten, who spent his boyhood in the basement teaching himself magic tricks, who served in Vietnam. But he is also a man who periodically spies on his wife, who calls himself the Sorceror, who makes of himself a master manipulator, who has horrible nightmares.
O’Brien alternates chapters about the search with those that explore Wade’s past. He also includes chapters of excerpts from interviews of those involved and from other sources as diverse as books on psychology, biographies of politicians, and records of military massacres, such as the Battle of Little Bighorn and My Lai.
This novel is absolutely riveting, written in spare and beautiful prose, disturbing and powerful. It is not so much a mystery as a novel about mystery–why we find it fascinating and what we can never know, a single human soul.