Viking £8.99

Caribou Island, By David Vann

A marriage on the rocks and a bleak house – built log-by-log

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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices