Caribou Island – David Vann

Caribou Island – David Vann

Book Review of Caribou Island by David Vann

At this late stage of January, I intend to get back to writing book reviews after what has been a very busy two or three weeks.  We’ve been away quiet a bit and then when at home every day seems to have been taken up with other activities.  I apologise for not visiting other people’s blogs too.  I will now get back on track and start writing again!

I have really enjoyed using my new Kindle and noticed that I had a mini-panic the other day when I mislaid it in the house.  I shall write about my Kindle experiences next week, but enough of that, let’s dissect a book.

David Vann first came to attention with Legend of a Suicide, a fictionalised account of his father’s suicide which left readers wondering where fact stopped and fiction started.  Its three stories acted as a sort of prolonged meditation on suicide and the reasons for it, while digressing into some horrific stories of how a teenager may seek retribution on an erring father.

Vann’s second novel Caribou Island has much in common with his first, both in theme and location (Alaska).  The cover says it all.  This is a bleak and inhospitable country, best left to bears and eagles and I am sure the Alaskan tourist authority will not be thanking Vann for his depiction of this dark and threatening region.

Irene and Gary, a retired couple have a relationship based on passive-aggressive hostility.  Gary always wanted to be a back-woodsman, but got “trapped” into taking a regular job in order to raise a family.  He hates his wife so much that he persuades her to help him build a log cabin on an uninhabited island (as though the community they already live in isn’t barren enough!).  

Irene’s reasons for joining in this mad escapade are never made clear, but she seems to have some sense of marital obligation which readers soon find is going to lead her to disaster.  Vann’s accounts of Gary and Irene’s attempts to get the building materials across to the island in a little metal boat depict a level of suffering which is sufficient in itself to show the hardships in store for this ill-fated couple.

Meanwhile, their daughter Rhoda lives with her dentist-fiancé Jim.  She is a well-intentioned girl who tries to save her mother from Gary’s mad plans, but really, poor Rhoda has enough problems of her own due to the hidden philanderings of deeply unpleasant tooth-doctor Jim.

Oh yes, Rhoda has a brother too, Mark, a free-living fisherman who, thankfully for him, has become semi-detached from his miserable family and is the sort of guy who works to earn some money then spends it on drink and drugs among like-minded friends.  Good for him – he’s really going to avoid a lot of angst by not knowing what’s going on in his parent’s relationship.

What I’d really like to do now is to talk about what happens to Gary and Irene, but just to touch on it would spoil the book.  Its pretty dramatic and Vann holds nothing back in his description of it.  But then he did that in Legend too, so if you survived that you’ll survive this.

I think it will by now be clear that this book is dark.  It is so dark that un-remitting gloom may be a better description of it.  Van is a skilled writer and his ability to provide an air of menace and impending disaster is second to none.  Anyone who liked Legend of a Suicide will like this one too, but Vann seems to have tried to avoid the pitfalls of the second-novel by recreating many of the themes of the first.

I can’t help but compare this strategy with Annie Proulx who came to attention with a similarly northern setting in her second book, the excellent  The Shipping News by something totally different in Accordion Crimes and has since increased her diversification of subject with every book thereafter.  

I hope that Vann’s choice of same location, same theme does not suggest a one-track mind.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Caribou Island, its a fine book (if slightly depressing) but as I read Caribou Island, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d “been there done that”.

Its hard to know how to summarise my feelings about this book.  I’d give it four out of five overall, because it really is well-written.  The missing fifth star says something about it being a little too much like Legend, and also something about the over-emphasis on the aforementioned “unremitting gloom”.  But if you like that sort of thing, then go for it – its a good read and you’ll find it well worthwhile.

Book Details

Title:  Caribou Island

Author: David Vann

Publication: Harper Collins (January 2011), Hardback, 304 pages

ISBN: 9780061875724