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BOOK REVIEW / Witch doctor of Charlie Company

IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS by Tim O'Brien, Flamingo pounds 5.99
"IT wasn't just the war that made him what he was." This comment is made in Tim O'Brien's new novel about its protagonist, John Wade, but it could as well apply to the author, who served as an infantryman in Vietnam. In his last book, The Things They Carried, he wrote: "You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present," and Vietnam reappears again and again in his work. With the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the running sore of Vietnam shows no sign of healing; and the recent disclosure by Robert McNamara, President Lyndon Johnson's Defence Secretary, that he believes US policy during the war to have been a disaster made doubly sure of that.

In The Lake of the Woods opens in Minnesota, up near the Canadian border, where hitherto up-and-coming politician and Vietnam veteran John Wade and his wife, Kathy, have gone to lick their wounds after his massive electoral defeat. The landslide was caused by the revelation that Wade took part in the My Lai massacre on 16 March 1968, when 504 civilians were murdered by the men of Charlie Company: 173 of the victims were children, including 60 babies, and 17 of the 182 women were pregnant.

One night, after they have been in Minnesota for a week, Kathy disappears. The subsequent plot turns on whether John has murdered Kathy, or whether, despite her apparent willingness to forgive, Kathy found herself unable to live with the knowledge of her husband's past or the fact of his concealing it from her.

Interspersed between chapters of narrative are chapters of "hypothesis" and chapters of "evidence" - extracts from transcripts of the My Lai court martial, newspaper reports, statements from Wade's mother and friends, and so on, substantiated by footnotes, some of them from a narrator/biographer examining the case four years later.

There is a dazzling technical virtuosity about the meshing of narrative, flashback, factual material, footnote and hypothesis. As a boy Wade made himself feel better about his life, his weight and his alcoholic father by doing magic. As a soldier in Vietnam he earned the nickname "Sorcerer". His conjuring tricks made him popular with the other guys, and sometimes he could even make the horrors disappear: " `Go away,' he murmured. He waited a moment, then said it again, firmly, much louder, and the little village began to vanish inside its own rosy glow. Here, he reasoned, was the most majestic trick of all."

Kathy writes to him in Vietnam: "Be careful with the tricks. One of these days you'll make me disappear."

One of these days he does. Or does he? O'Brien's shimmering novel has all the quality of a mirage. Now you see it, now you don't. Did Wade make Kathy disappear or did O'Brien?

Wade manages to pull off lots of tricks, including the one that involved falsifying his military records, but the grand illusion defeats him: he can't make My Lai disappear. In America, and in American politics, there are eventually no secrets.

When Kathy's sister comes to help in the search, she says to Wade: "She's your wife. You could've opened up, tried to explain." This subtle, beautifully written book is about the impossibility of such an explanation and the slipperiness of truth. It is also about justice. It doesn't matter whether Wade has murdered his wife. He might as well have done.