Legend of a Suicide, By David Vann

Haunted by a family's dark side
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In Raymond Carver's "What's in Alaska?", a young couple discuss their dreams of starting over. Jack and Mary see Alaska as a place of escape – even if Carver's unadorned prose suggests this will never happen. After reading David Vann's haunting first book, both would probably agree they were better off staying where they were.

Roy Finn, who narrates five of the six stories, spends his boyhood confined to the desolate islands of Alaska, his family constrained by his father's erratic behaviour. This relationship, the heart of Legend of a Suicide, is fractured by Jim's untenable dreams, broken by his self-obsession, kept together by silences and half-truths, and ultimately ended by his self-inflicted gunshot to the head.

In these early stories, the writing is simple and rhythmic, with a telling eye for the brutality of the natural world. Roy shows the shadows Jim's suicide has cast over his life. These are beautifully written, effortless and polished; but it's hard not to feel this territory is too familiar from other American writers. The Americana of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff – with its landscape of losers and dreamers – is instantly recognisable in these opening stories. Good though they are, they do not suggest that Vann wishes to transcend his influences.

Things change, however, in the novella-length "Sukkwan Island". The switch to a third-person narrative, and a darker, denser style, hint at a change in direction, but it is the contradictions between the version of events presented here and those Roy has already mentioned that really deviates from familiar textures. Suddenly the reader is forced to examine what we are reading. This is more than just a simple exercise in unreliable narration; the novella is provides a deeper, more nuanced, understanding of both Jim and Roy.

Taken as a kind of novel in stories, Legend of a Suicide is a bold, intelligent and consistently moving exploration of familial dysfunction. This intensely resonant and emotionally rewarding piece of fiction is quite possibly the finest American debut of the year.