Book Review of Caribou Island by David Vann
By Tim Chamberlain
Debut novelist David Vann explores dark and dangerous emotional territory in his first full-length effort, Caribou Island. Set in the wilderness of Alaska, Caribou Island is the story of a failing marriage between the recently retired and ailing Irene and her husband Gary, a failed academic that has scraped by on fishing and boat-building for the past 30 years.
A word of warning: do not expect cuddly characters or easily-resolved storylines in Caribou Island. This is a tale of lives and relationships unravelling, and Vann digs in and exposes his characters’ emotions as if he were dissecting a frog. Regret, disappointment, loneliness and anger are nearly palpable throughout the book (interspersed with a few tender and funny moments), making the conclusion a somewhat cathartic experience.
The novel opens with Irene telling her adult daughter Rhoda about the day when, as a child, she found that Rhoda’s grandmother had hanged herself. The shadow of the suicide follows Irene throughout her life. She fears being abandoned again, and this only contributes to her fear that Gary plans to leave her after all this time.
While there are several parallel stories, Irene is the emotional center of the book. She has come to understand that her relationship with her husband has changed in major ways over the years, unwelcome ways. She is lonely, and she is resentful of a husband that increasingly ignores her. The desire to reconnect is there, but she realizes that they are not the same people that first moved to Alaska 30 years before, making reconnection impossible.
While Irene is haunted by the suicide of her mother and her rapidly deteriorating relationship, her husband Gary is doggedly attempting to build the cabin he has dreamed of on the remote Caribou Island, accessible only by boat. This move will seemingly satisfy his decades-long obsession with further isolation, as moving Irene from a university town in California to a remote lake in Alaska decades before wasn’t already isolating enough. His continuing need for further isolation seems to reinforce Irene’s fear that he will eventually leave her.
Gary’s lonesome cabin project is a not-so-veiled metaphor for his and Irene’s entire life together. He has always had grand plans that never seem to bear much fruit, and Irene always finds herself in the role of helping Gary with his plans while keeping a stiff upper lip. Recurring failure has marked Gary’s entire adult life, something that has left him full of regret and growing ever more distant from his wife. The tension between Irene and Gary builds throughout the construction of the cabin, until it feels as unbearable to the reader as it does to the characters.
Though Vann spends a lot of time in his character’s heads and hearts, he really shines when describing his native Alaska. It is obvious that he has a deep love for the wilderness he grew up in, and his writing evokes both the beauty and the danger inherent in the landscape.
Released in January 2011, Caribou Island is David Vann’s first novel. To listen to the interview of David Vann by Hopeton Hay and Tim Chamberlain on KAZI Book Review click here: David Vann Interview.