I think I have officially come to the conclusion that Tim O'Brien is my favorite contemporary American author. There are others in the conversation--primarily Thomas Pynchon--but none seem to possess the ability to write in extremely readable prose while having his stories carry a significant weight with them. His books evoke intense emotional reactions yet never fall into the realm of a laborious read. In the Lake of the Woods definitely meets that description.
As is often the case in O'Brien's novels, there is a fuzzy relationship with truth and reality. This leaves the reader constantly searching for stability where it likely will not be found. In the Lake of the Woods follows a disgraced Minnesota politician who takes a break from the harsh light of the real world in the isolation of the far-removed Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota/Canada border. While on this getaway, John Wade's wife, Kathy, disappears. Given the very public discovery of John's dark past, all signs inevitably point toward the husband.
If that was all that was going on here, the novel would be pretty run-of-the-mill, but O'Brien uses the locked room mystery to great effect. As he delves into John and Kathy's past, it only muddles the circumstances surrounding the disappearance. With each detail of his service in Vietnam coming into light, the perception of who John Wade is--and for that matter, who Kathy is by her relation to him--becomes more and more tenuous. As more information comes to light, it seems that the facts of what happened on that fateful 1986 night only become more obscured.
It is the deftness with which O'Brien handles the investigation into the disappearance that vaults this book into the pantheon of transcendent mystery novels. He lays out evidence, presents hypotheses, and details the past. Through all this, he pieces together a puzzle that simply leaves you asking more questions and doesn't leave the reader worse for wear.