Thursday 27 December 2012

In The Lake Of The Woods, By Jim O'Brien

There is a small second-hand bookshop on Scott Street in Blenheim. I visit it more than any other place in town. They have two, sometimes three wheelbarrows outside the front doors that I am unable to pass by without at least a quick check - they're full of cheap books.

On Saturday I picked up a copy of Tim O'Brien's In The Lake Of The Woods. I seldom read the back cover of fiction books before reading them, prefering to choose a book based on the author or merely judge the book by its cover or name - I don't want to know any details about the story I'm about to read. I had a quick glance at the back of this one, though, and "... in a remote lakeside cabin deep in the Minnesota forests," combined with a brief look inside and getting a good feel from the book was enough to convince me $2.50 was a small price to pay to have this book.

The front cover stated 'BOOK OF THE YEAR' TIME MAGAZINE, so I'm hardly the first to discover it. Apparently they selected it as the Best Work Of Fiction in 1994.

The brief look inside before buying had revealed, amongst the 'normal' prose, a section (there are actually a few) titled 'Evidence', that had small quotes and excerpts with footnotes. It had a feeling of a non-fiction book, and I was keen to read it, as lately I have been pondering the idea of helping with the suspension of disbelief that makes all fiction work by presenting the fiction in as 'real' a format as possible.

The style worked well. The prose is simple and reminiscent of Hemingway a lot of the time. The following is from the first chapter, and feels very much like Hemingway dialogue to me:


Later, Kathy pushed back the blankets and moved off toward the railing at the far end of the porch. She seemed to vanish into the heavy dark, the fog curling around her, and when she spoke, her voice came from somewhere far away, as if lifted from her body, unattached and not quite authentic.

"I'm not crying," she said.

"Of course you're not."

"Its just a rotten time, that's all. This stupid thing we have to get through."

"Stupid," he said.

"I didn't mean -"

"No, you're right. Damned stupid."

Things went silent. Just the waves and woods, a delicate in-and-out breathing. The night seemed to wrap itself around them.

"John, listen, I can't always come up with the right words. All I meant was - you know - I meant there's this wonderful man I love and I want him to be happy and thats all I care about. Not elections."

"Fine, then."

"And not newspapers."

"Fine," he said.

Kathy made a sound in the dark, which wasn't crying. "You do love me?"

"More than anything."

"Lots, I mean?"

"Lots," he said. "A whole busful. Come here now."

Kathy crossed the porch, knelt down beside him, pressed the palm of her hand against his forehead. There was the steady hum of lake and woods. In the days afterward, when she was gone, he would remember this with perfect clarity, as if it were still happening. He would remember a breathing sound inside the fog. He would remember the feel of her hand against his forehead, its warmth, how purely alive it was.

"Happy," she said. "Nothing else."


Some parts later reminded me of Hemingway's posthumously published Islands In The Stream, although I would have prefered more passages like this, set amongst the wilderness:


She was in a wide, gently curving channel flanked by four little islands, and for a few seconds she idled there, not sure about direction. She opened the red gas can, refueled, then turned the boat in a slow semicircle and took aim at a stand of pines a mile or so back down the channel. The breeze had picked up now. Not quite a wind, but the waves stood higher on the lake, and the air was taking sharp bites at her neck and shoulders. There was no sound except for the rusty old Evinrude.

Kathy buttoned up her sweater. No problem, she thought. Connect the dots.

And then for well ever an hour she held a line toward the southeast. lt was thick, gorgeous country, everything painted in blues and greens, and the engine gave off a steady burbling noise that reassured her. A good story for dinner. Danger and high adventure. It might give John a few things to think about. Like the priorities in his life, and where his marriage ranked, and how he was in jeopardy of losing something more than an election. You could get lost in all sorts of ways - ways he'd never considered - and she’d tell him that.

Humming to herself, Kathy adjusted the tiller and began planning a dinner menu, two big steaks and salad and cold beer, imagining how she’d describe everything that was happening out here. Get some sympathy for herself. Get his attention for a change.

The idea gave her comfort. She could almost picture a happy ending.

After twenty minutes the channel forked around a large rocky island, narrowing for a mile, then breaking off into three smaller channels that curled away into the trees. The place struck her as both familiar and foreign. On whim, she took the center channel and followed it through a funnel of pine and brush for what seemed far too long. Occasionally the channel widened out, opening into pretty little bays and then closing up tight again. Like a river, she thought, except it didn’t flow. The water beneath her had the feel of something static and purposeless, like her marriage, with no reality beyond its own vague alliance with everything else.

Ahead, the channel widened out into a stretch of open water, deep blue and icy looking. She squinted up at the sun to calculate the remaining daylight. Maybe five hours until dark. Angle Inlet had to he somewhere off to the south, probably a shade to the west.

She nodded to herself and said, "All right, fine," and fixed the boat on a southerly course, or what she took to be south, now and then checking her direction against the sun. The day was bright and windy, a string of filmy white clouds scudding eastward. She eased back on the throttle and for more than two hours moved through a chain of silvery bays and lakes that unfolded without stop to the horizon. There were no cabins, no other boats. Along the shoreline, thick growths of cattails bent sideways in the wind, and there were occaisonal flights of ducks and loons, but mostly it was a dull succession of woods and water. After a time she felt a detached laziness come over her, a sitting-down sensation. At one point she found herself singing old nursery songs; later on she laughed at the memory of one of Harmon's filthy jokes - a chipmunk, a deaf rhinoceros. A spasm of guilt went through her. Not that she'd ever loved the man, not even close, but there was still the shame of what had happened back then. She pictured his bare white chest, the fingers so thick and stubby for someone who made a living at dentistry. Hard to believe she'd felt things for him.

Enough, she thought. Leave it alone.


It's not all slow dialogue and nice scenery, though - there are also quite a lot of gruesome war scenes.

A well-written book that starts off with some mystery, adds a bit more as it goes a long, and, quite frankly, ends mysteriously.

View the book on or