Caribou Island, By David Vann
A marriage on the rocks and a bleak house – built log-by-log
Sunday 23 January 2011
David Vann's debut collection of stories, Legend of a Suicide, was one of the most brilliant pieces of fiction to be published in the past five years, and the proof copy of this, his first novel, comes with an array of ecstatic quotes from that first book plastered over it.
"An American classic" and "jaw-droppingly powerful" are not even the most effusive, but for once the hype is justified. Legend of a Suicide was an instinctive and visceral fictional reworking of the true story of Vann's father's suicide when he was a teenager, with a twist in its central novella that had to be read to be believed.
Caribou Island, although it has to be said that it still packs an almighty punch, slightly lacks the brutal, shocking force of its predecessor. It is a more rounded and more ambitious work. It shares many features with Legend of a Suicide: the extreme nature of the Alaskan wilderness as a backdrop; the way the landscape mirrors and shapes the traumatic situations his characters find themselves in. There is also a running theme of the failed American dream, the idea that chasing an idealised way of living at one with nature will, ultimately, destroy you. And both books revolve around a disastrous and eventually violent relationship. In Legend of a Suicide it was the father-son bond; this time, it's the disintegration of a 30-year marriage.
The focus of Caribou Island is the relationship between Gary and Irene, a couple in their mid-50s who live at the end of a dirt track outside a remote Alaskan town. It's the end of the world, but it's not far enough from society for Gary, who has decided on behalf of the two of them that they are going to up sticks and build a new log cabin home on the rough and barely accessible Caribou Island, across the glacial Kenai Peninsula.
The book opens with the couple embroiled in a disastrous day's work, loading and unloading logs on to an unsuitable boat in driving wind and rain, trying to get this first shipment to the island before the cruel Alaskan autumn and winter descend. It is an excruciating scene, and a terrible omen of things to come. As they reach the island, Irene thinks this: "If you wanted to be a fool and test the limits of how bad things could get, this was a good place for it." And indeed, things get as bad as you think they can get, then a whole lot worse.
While Irene and Gary's story acts as a focus for Caribou Island, there is a lot more going on. There are, in fact, at least seven narrative voices, all of them distinct and convincing, as Vann delves into various other man-woman relationships, each with their own faultlines. Gary and Irene's daughter Rhoda is engaged to affluent dentist Jim, and while he's having an affair with trust-fund drop-out Monique, she's stressing about the nature of love, as well as being deeply concerned for her parents' wellbeing. Meanwhile, Rhoda's brother, Mark, is a part-time stoner, part-time extreme fisherman, and Monique's boyfriend, Carl, is a hopelessly inadequate romantic whiner; a puppy she kicks around.
But the story always returns to Irene, Gary, and that cursed log cabin of theirs, its slapdash, faltering construction mirroring the state of their marriage; the deadly nature of the surroundings echoing the couple's inextricable slide towards oblivion. Caribou Island is a bleak book, as bleak as an Alaskan winter, but it also wields an unforgiving, elemental power that is breathtaking to read.
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