Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (Read The Things They Carried first…and second)
Obrien’s novel reads as a constant reminder of how the past bleeds into the present. In this work, John and Kathy are ruined by public revelations that John took active part in the My Lai massacre during his service in Vietman. His upward political trajectory is ruined by his past. Set in a cabin by the woods, the couple are trying—and failing—to rekindle some form of relationship. Kathy’s past has a few skeletons—an abortion, infidelity. John’s childhood (his past), specifically his disapproving father, haunt him and make some of the horrors he takes part in My Lai make a strange sort of sense. He’s marginalized at an early age by his lack of athleticism. As a child, he learns how to become a magician as a form of literal and figurative escape and becomes “the scorcerer” in Vietnam performing atrocities as almost ‘acts.’
When Kathy mysteriously disappears after John wakes up in a psychotic state, the novel becomes a simple murder mystery with only a few possibilities. The suspense aspect of the novel really just acts as a vehicle for what one might call “typical O’Brien”, philosophical meanderings into the horrors of human behavior.
There are several aspects of the novel that are pervasive components of O’Brien’s works: the combination of factual historical events with fictional narrative. My Lai is not only cast as a part of the fictional character’s experience, O’Brien includes sections of actual historical testimony intertwined with witness accounts of the John/Kathy relationship. A second component is O’Brien’s use of water (lakes, boiling water, etc). Kathy disappears into the water with ambiguity as to whether she drowned, was murdered and thrown in the lake, or committed suicide. John boils his houseplants, creating a moist implied-Vietnam like atmosphere. He may have likewise killed Kathy by pouring the water on her. John escapes to Canada [hello, The Things They Carried] by taking a boat to Canada.