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Caribou Island: A Novel Hardcover – January 18, 2011


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (January 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061875724
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061875724
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (99 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,431,418 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Product Description
The prize-winning author of Legend of a Suicide delivers his highly anticipated debut novel.

On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unraveling. Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are trying to rebuild their life together. Following the outline of Gary's old dream, they're hauling logs to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to build the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place.

But this island is not right for Irene. They are building without plans or advice, and when winter comes early, the overwhelming isolation of the prehistoric wilderness threatens their bond to the core. Caught in the emotional maelstrom is their adult daughter, Rhoda, who is wrestling with the hopes and disappointments of her own life. Devoted to her parents, she watches helplessly as they drift further apart.

Brilliantly drawn and fiercely honest, Caribou Island captures the drama and pathos of a husband and wife whose bitter love, failed dreams, and tragic past push them to the edge of destruction. A portrait of desolation, violence, and the darkness of the soul, it is an explosive and unforgettable novel from a writer of limitless possibility.


A Q&A with David Vann

Q: Set in Alaska, Caribou Island is the story of a marriage’s unraveling and the tragic events it precipitates. How does your setting reflect and shape the novel’s plot and the characters, especially Irene and Gary?

Vann: I think wilderness has no meaning on its own. It’s a giant mirror. So as I was writing Caribou Island, I kept focusing on Alaska, and as I described the landscape I was indirectly describing and discovering the interior lives of Irene and Gary. The island and lake are constantly shifting in shape and mood, and even the storms that come down off the glacier feel like they belong to Irene. She resents taking care of this man for thirty years and receiving only his vacancy in return, and the desolation of the place increases the pressure on her. There are no distractions, and no escape is possible.

Q: You were born in Alaska and spent your childhood there. What was that experience like? What are your impressions of this state that has become such a focus of public consciousness?

Vann: Alaska is magnificent, and the cold rainforest of Ketchikan, where I spent my childhood, is still mythic in my imagination. In that forest, I always felt I was being watched, and we really did have bears and wolves. There was so much undergrowth and deadfall, I’d sometimes fall through the forest floor to a second floor and disappear completely. And the ocean was even more impossible. The first king salmon I caught was taller than I was, and my grandfather caught a 250-lb halibut. I remember watching it slowly rising to the surface, growing until it became bigger than my imagination. I write about Alaska because it’s in that landscape that I can find some sense of self and possibility and freedom.

Q: You have been very open about your family tragedies, including your father’s suicide. Was it difficult approaching such a sensitive topic? How has using the raw material of these events affected you?

Vann: It took me ten years to write Legend of a Suicide, and I threw away everything from the first three or four years because there was too much emotion on the first page. I had to learn to tell stories indirectly, and the writing had to become more than therapy. Writing and therapy are both about truth, but only writing is about the beautiful. What was ugly has to be transformed and become readable. In Caribou Island there are again several true family stories in the background, but farther away than my father’s suicide, and my focus again was on seeing how the stories would shift and become something else.

Q: As a male writer, did you face any challenges capturing the voice of your female characters?

Vann: I didn’t expect to write about marriage, and I didn’t expect to write from the viewpoint of a woman, but I saw that Irene was the center of the story, and that her daughter Rhoda was also vitally important. I didn’t struggle with voice or point of view at all for some reason, perhaps because my sympathies were with Irene and Rhoda and less with Gary and Jim. To me, Irene and Rhoda make the best sense of the world and are the most honest, and this follows what I’ve experienced in real life, also. I was raised by women, and I trusted their accounts more than men’s accounts.

Q: How would you assess your evolution as a writer from your award-winning collection Legend of a Suicide to this, your first novel? Did you find your voice naturally, or was it a struggle to find the right sound and rhythm?

Vann: With Legend of a Suicide, I was learning how to write. The book is a short novel framed by five short stories, and I was tremendously influenced by various writers during that ten-year period, so the style and voice vary from story to story and form a kind of debate. This makes sense for the material, because no one in my family could agree on who my father was, what happened, or what his suicide meant. There was no one story or one voice to find anywhere. But Caribou Island is a far more cohesive piece, and I wrote two pages per day in a kind of extended dream, hoping it would feel like it was written in one sitting. And I didn’t struggle at all with voice, because I think of writing as being mostly unconscious and out of control. All I have to do is get out of the way and avoid having plans and ideas. As long as I return each day to focus on place and character, the book writes itself. The final published version is almost exactly the same as my first draft, and it just is what it is. I don’t think authors really get to choose what they write.

Q: Who are the writers you admire?

Vann: My favorite writers focus on landscape. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. These writers extend literal landscapes into figurative landscapes. In Blood Meridian, for instance, we find mountains “whose true geology was not stone but fear.” We focus on the real mountains and then they slip and shift and describe what we fear and desire and who we imagine ourselves to be. We shape ourselves through place.

From Publishers Weekly

People haunted by their own failures and lost dreams drive Vann's earnest but uneven first novel, which opens with Irene, an ailing middle-aged Alaskan woman, telling her grown daughter, Rhoda, about coming home and finding her mother "hanging from the rafters" one day when she was 10 years old. Irene also tells Rhoda that she believes her husband, Gary, wants to leave her. Gary, "a champion of regret," wanted to be an academic, but ekes out a living fishing and building boats while planning a self-imposed exile with Irene on an island in Alaska's Skilak Lake, where he's building a crude log cabin. Rhoda envisions marital bliss with her boyfriend, Jim, a philandering, selfish dentist. Their internal monologues rage with ideas and desires that read like authorial conceits, not the thoughts of real people. The only true character is Alaska itself, and Vann, author of the story collection Legend of a Suicide, is at his best depicting the harsh, rugged landscape of the Alaskan wilderness. (Jan.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

More About the Author

Published in 19 languages, David Vann's internationally-bestselling books have won 15 prizes, including best foreign novel in France and Spain, and appeared on 70 Best Books of the Year lists in a dozen countries. He has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Outside, Men's Health, Men's Journal, The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Elle UK, Esquire UK, Esquire Russia, National Geographic Adventure, Writer's Digest, McSweeney's, and other magazines and newspapers. A former Guggenheim fellow, National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Wallace Stegner fellow, and John L'Heureux fellow, he is currently a Professor at the University of Warwick in England. www.davidvann.com

Customer Reviews

Could not finish this book.
SHIRLEY WOLFE
The writing is incredible - descriptions of the landscape as well as the relationships between characters are amazing.
Holly
The characters often seemed to have too much insight or were too deliberate in their thoughts and actions.
IonMoon

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Jill I. Shtulman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Not long ago, I was mesmerized by David Vann's exceptional and perceptive collection, Legend of a Suicide - a mythology of his father's death. I wondered whether his first full-length novel would capture the magic and raw energy of that astonishing book.

The answer, I'm pleased to say, is yes.

Beware: Caribou Island is NOT for readers who are looking for "likeable characters" and Hollywood-type endings. It ventures into dark emotional territory that's not always comfortable to reside in - the same type of territory that's inhabited by, say, Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In other words, it packs a wallop.

Gary and Irene are a couple who have lived for years in Alaska, "an open space, an opportunity to forget about something as small as heartache." There's a juxtaposition of Alaska as a grand and vast space with the downright claustrophobia of a marriage falling apart. Irene reluctantly "signs on" to Gary's desire to build a cabin from the ground up in uninhabited and remote Caribou Island.

The cabin becomes a metaphor for their lives. Irene thinks, "Maybe you can nail each layer down into the next...if they could take all their previous selves and nail them together, get who they were five years ago and twenty-five years to fit closer together, maybe they'd have a sense of something solid."

But that is not to be. Instead, Irene views herself as "chilled and alone...not the expansive vision you'd be tempted to have, spreading your arms on some sunny day on an open slope of purple lupine, looking at mountains all around." Irene, if truth be known, is falling apart; she is having extreme flashbacks to the time when she found her mother, a suicide.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful By L. King VINE VOICE on January 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
David Vann is a very good writer. His characters have a lot of texture, the landscape is concrete, and the tastes and smells are visceral. Caribou Island takes place at the end of summer/beginning of winter. Things are becoming cold and bleak and desolate, and this change of seasons sets the tone for the whole book. All of the characters are flawed, broken, and dysfunctional. They are all spiraling into repeating terrible patterns, living depressing lives, or being betrayed by someone they love (or all of the above).

So if he's such a good writer, why have I given Caribou Island only 3 stars. The story is so so very sad. No one learns from their mistakes. No one grows or changes. The bleak darkness that we are careening towards is realized, and no one benefits from the terrible tragedy. As a character sketch the book was flawless. As a story, it was unrepentantly lugubrious. There is not a shred of humor in the entire book, and not one uplifting angle.

After reading the last page, I felt a little queasy.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By K. L. Cotugno VINE VOICE on November 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
After 30 years of marriage, Gary is finally building a cabin in the Alaska wilderness, aided by his increasingly fragile wife Irene. This is a cabin under construction by a couple whose marriage is under dissolution. In his impatience, Gary, lacking proper knowledge, materials or tools or even plans, forges ahead with his dream. The cabin becomes a symbol of their marriage with fissures between ill placed logs and no way to seal them and keep out the elements.

Vann chillingly evokes the landscape, using to good effect the splendor and danger of magnificent mountains, vistas and glacier-fed lakes, powerfully employing the increasing winter weather until it almost becomes a character itself. It has been said by other reviewers that there are no likable characters in this novel, but Vann's depiction of each person, internalizing character flaws and complexities, renders them more fascinating than despicable. It could be said that this is a romantic thriller, except that there is really no romance to be found.

One stylistic quibble -- why no quotation marks? For a reader, this interrupts the flow since conversations begin with no indication. Perhaps they will appear in the final version.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Bonnie Brody TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Many people think of Alaska as wildness with great open spaces in a mountainous wildernous with sub-arctic cold, dark and long winters, ever-light summers, bears and moose. This is not the Alaska of David Vann. His Alaska consists of what sounds like an area most likely the Tongass National Rain Forest. This is the northernmost rainforest on earth, and it extends into southeast Alaska. Trees here are huge but grow close together here much like in the Amazon. It rains up to 400 inches a year in this part of Alaska and the days are often dark and dismal with damp that cuts right through you. There is no vista in this forest; all you have are the trees that hem you in.

It is in this Alaska that Gary and Irene realize that their marriage is falling apart, that they go through the motions of one last try at redeeming their moribund marriage. They decide to build a cabin on Caribou Island, a place both isolated and isolating. Gary has no coherent plans and their cabin ends up as a bunch of sticks stuck together every which way with huge gaps everywhere. The elements are not kept out and the rain, snow and wind wails through the cabin even as the last nail is hammered crookedly in.

Irene blames Gary for her life, for not having fulfilled what she might have been without him, and Gary blames Irene for his life's failures as well. Once he was a promising dissertation student at University of California Berkeley. Now he goes from ill-conceived project to ill-conceived project, each one failing and losing money. Irene was once a happy hippy chick who now goes weeks with horrific pain in her head for which doctors can find no source. They have two children, Mark and Rhoda. Mark is barely in their lives but Rhoda has a dream of helping them find salvation with each other.
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