Author David Vann conveys the elemental landscape of the Alaskan wilderness as a metaphor for recent retirees Irene and Gary and their unraveling marriage in his heartbreaking novel Caribou Island. If this were a meal, it would be a gourmet treasure, a palette of colors, textures and ingredients so unusual as to make the diner gasp at its unique nature. However, the hopelessness of the protagonists’ lives makes it almost impossible to take more than small bites of this tome. Irene’s headaches and melancholy are rendered to make the reader feel the pain and the depression as she experiences it. As a reader I found it arduous to dwell in Irene’s maladies when I wanted to scream at her to get away from her narcissist husband. Gary’s obsession with building a cabin without plans or elementary skills when he knew that Irene hated the island and its isolation was unpleasant to read and he seemed too insensitive to be real. Their daughter, Rhoda, sees her mother’s descent as a problem and she tries to help but she has her own demons. She’s lived with her wealthy boyfriend for a year and they have a future but Jim is exhibiting much of the same lack of empathy for her life as her father shows her mother. The minor characters add a Stephen King aspect to the novel contributing even more to the disquieting atmosphere. When visitor Monique seduces Jim, the writing sizzles and evokes a scene as visual as one by Tennessee Williams and with some of his same psychological intrigue.
Readers will need strong stomachs for dysfunction and misery to tolerate the despondency and enjoy the beauty of the writing. David Vann is clearly an adept novelist with breathtaking talent. This novel deserves five stars for the luminous writing but I can only grant it three for readability. Vann clearly prepares the reader for the stark conclusion and for the manner in which the sins of the past visit future generations but for me that still didn't make it easy enough to accept. Vann writes: "Those who couldn't fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn't cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge." As a reader, I fell off the edge while reading this novel. Usually I’m grateful for a novel capturing me so fully but I just couldn’t swallow that much tragedy in one book.
Summing it up: Read this dark, morose novel about a dysfunctional couple who set off to build a cabin on a remote island in Alaska coupled with the story of the effect of their lives on their adult children for the writing but know that it’ll be disheartening.
Rating: 3 stars for readability/5 stars for the writing
Category: Fiction, Gourmet
Publication Date: January, 2011
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The Paris Review: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/02/10/david-vann-on-%E2%80%98caribou-island%E2%80%99/