Saturday, February 05, 2011

'Caribou Island' by David Vann

Literary Fiction, 2011
Harper Collins, eBook (ARC), 227 p.
Source: Netgalley/Harper Collins
From the publisher:
On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unraveling. Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are trying to rebuild their life together. Following the outline of Gary's old dream, they're hauling logs to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to build the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place.
But this island is not right for Irene. They are building without plans or advice, and when winter comes early, the overwhelming isolation of the prehistoric wilderness threatens their bond to the core. Caught in the emotional maelstrom is their adult daughter, Rhoda, who is wrestling with the hopes and disappointments of her own life. Devoted to her parents, she watches helplessly as they drift further apart.
Brilliantly drawn and fiercely honest, Caribou Island captures the drama and pathos of a husband and wife whose bitter love, failed dreams, and tragic past push them to the edge of destruction. A portrait of desolation, violence, and the darkness of the soul, it is an explosive and unforgettable novel from a writer of limitless possibility.
As you can gather from the blurb above, this isn’t a happy story. The main characters, Irene and Gary, are stuck in a marriage that is falling to pieces around them. The tipping point is reached when Gary attempts to achieve his lifelong dream of building a cabin on Caribou Island. But like everything else he has tried to do in his life, he’s going in unprepared, without any plans, or any real clue what he’s doing. Irene stoically goes along with the project despite knowing the futility of it, but her frustration is too transparent, which pushes them even further apart.

Running parallel to their story is the story of Rhoda, Irene and Gary’s daughter, who is in her own troubled relationship. It was in reading about Rhoda that I realized Caribou Island is also a kind of prequel to Sukkwan Island, David Vann’s earlier novella, which won the Prix Médicis étranger in 2010. The characters don’t appear in exactly the same form in both books but they are, without a doubt, drawn from the same source. The events in Caribou Island take place before those in Sukkwan Island, so I found myself going back to the novella to re-read the scenes in which Rhoda appears there, with an added awareness from having read the back-story, as it were.

Caribou Island also shares other elements with Sukkwan Island, namely David Vann’s beautiful, sparse prose, as well as the incredibly vivid setting. The isolation and the harsh, unforgiving landscape are an apt metaphor for the loneliness of an unhappy marriage. And like with Sukkwan Island, it’s the kind of story that lingers long after you’ve read it.

Ultimately, Caribou Island is about the human connection that we all seek but that can often elude us. It’s about people settling for whatever situation they’ve found themselves in, or whomever they’ve ended up with, so that they are never entirely content, and how that colours the rest of their lives. It’s also about trying to escape your past but in the end, how the tragedy keeps repeating itself generation after generation.

Such a depressing story, and in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have read Sukkwan Island and Caribou Island back to back. The evening after I turned the last page of Caribou Island, I had to watch a cheesy romantic comedy to cheer myself up a bit. This might sound like a bad thing but it’s not really. It’s only because I became engaged in their story, and felt for the characters, that it held such an emotional weight. I think this was also compounded for me because in some ways the story resonated with me personally. I can relate to being stuck somewhere I never expected to be.

How the story unfolds is far from surprising. But even though I knew where it was headed, and how it was inevitably going to turn out, I had to keep reading. It was like a kind of slow-motion collision, and that feeling of not being able to look away. If you’re looking for a light, feel-good story, this isn’t it, but despite the bleakness, it is compelling. A dark, beautifully written, tragic tale.

For more information visit:
David Vann's website
Harper Collins website
My review of Sukkwan Island

Buy Caribou Island at: | | | |

Also reviewed by:
S. Krishna's Books
Savidge Reads
dovegreyreader scribbles
So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
If I've missed yours, let me know and I'll link to it here.

The small print: This book was received free of charge from the publisher for review purposes. Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. Wonderful review!

    I want to read the book even more, after your review. I must get my hands on it. Soon. Before I forget.

  2. Great review of this one! I hadn't read any other books by Vann before this one - but now I want to read more of his work. You felt as I did about the novel :) Thanks for the link love!

  3. Loved your review! It does seem like such a dark book, I bet there's a feeling of despair instilled in the reader, so I can only imagine how the author felt like writing this book.

  4. Sometimes it's nice to be depressed. That probably doesn't make much sense, but every now and then I actually enjoy reading a novel that gets me all melancholy. :)

  5. I really like the cover of this- it's so moody. It sounds good but a little too confronting for me at the moment.

  6. Great review! I love books that are insightful, even if they are depressing.

  7. Excellent review of this book. I don't think I liked it as much as you did but it was a worthwhile read. We can all agree that it was dark and depressing but well written.

    Thanks for the link. I will go add yours to my review as well.

  8. This sounds like a good book but heavy too. Thank you for the review of it.

    If you have time today to pop over to the Where Are You Reading anniversary party - I would love to see you there! (I am the one in the party hat) :)

  9. You and Wendy have both piqued my interest in this novel. Vann has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and caribou island to The Road. The Road was so bleak and depressing and I didn't enjoy it while I was reading it, but it really grew on me once I finished, if that's even possible. I have a feeling Vann's novels are worthwhile in spite of their bleakness. I'll have to wait for the right time to delve into something so emotional, though. Excellent review, Nat!


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