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Caribou Island: A Novel Hardcover – January 18, 2011
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The Amazon Book Review
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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.)
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Top customer reviews
sure I can contribute anything substantial. All I can do is echo some of what others have
said - hopefully, a little of something new will surface.
If you've read other reviews (other than the one line types) you know Gary and Irene are retirees living in Alaska. As the weather begins turning between fall and winter, Gary has finally decided now's the time to get his "dream" cabin built, one he's been wanting to build for years, apparently. On the remote Caribou Island he and Irene begin. Gary has no plan, and is working off what he visualizes is the correct way to do things. Cold, rainy weather greets them on the first day, but Gary refuses to let it stop him from continuing to load logs on their boat. They both are soaked and freezing in short order, the result of which is a severe headache Irene contracts and which torments her for the entire novel.
Their lives together has been deteriorating over the passage of years. Irene's convinced Gary's using the act of building the cabin to drive her away, force a split. As readers, we are never quite sure she was correct in her assessment, but later in the novel, as we gain insight into Gary's mind, we discover she is.
What becomes clear is the closer the cabin is to completion, the worse things become between them and on the day Gary finishes, hammering on the last remaining piece of aluminum roof on what is undeniably no more than a miserable, tiny shack, things come to a head.
"Caribou Island" is not a pleasant read. That's not to say it isn't well written - for the most part it's beautifully constructed (though the frequent use of "so" in the early pages started to annoy) and draws the reader in with vivid descriptions of the changing weather, and the even more vivid descriptions of the characters thoughts as the book progresses.
There are other characters of course, including the daughter who's naivete in her beliefs that love will win the day, the son who just doesn't care, the daughter's fiance, a middle-aged dentist that has no real interest in marriage, Monique and Carl, two characters from the lower 48 visiting Alaska just for fun. Monique has an affair with the dentist while Carl ends up broke and returns to the states. After blackmailing the dentist, Monique also heads back. With the exception of the daughter, Rhoda, all of these other characters simply pale to nearly being pointless in the story compared to Gary and Irene's struggles.
The book disturbed me. I woke the next day with it on my mind. I thought about it off and on and even now, a week after finishing it, it will frequently enter my head, uninvited, almostlike a PTSD. In a way, I guess, it is. Right down to the final pages, when it became clear where the story was heading, you hope for a breakthrough, a reconciliation between the two tortured souls.
It doesn't come - and on retrospect, how could it? Any ending other than what there is would diminish the novel as a whole. You have to be able to read a novel such as this and savor the writing, the lyricism, the symbolism to gain enjoyment. If you need stories with hope or happiness, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Highly recommended, with certain reservations, therefore, 4 stars, though I can certainly understand those who have given it 5 stars, or even those who have given it less.
And yes, as others have said, it's a 'dark' story but I didn't find it excessively so. It seemed so human and so very real. I highly recommend this book.
The story revolves around a family, Gary and Irene who have been unfortunately married for thirty-plus years and their two adult children, all living in the bleakest of bleakest settings. No wonder Irene is as emotionally fragile as she is, a woman who taught school for thirty-three years and is now dealing with a husband who insists that they build a horrid camp-like structure on an island that no one else would ever build on.
Their children are, on the whole, more emotionally stable. But so hemmed in by the environment--and, of course, dysfunctional relationships.
There is a scene in a fish canning factory where a very pathetic Carl has taken a job--it will not last a day--where he is part of a crew that cleans salmon. It is such a brilliantly written scene, one in which the reader can feel the weather, the nastiness of the job, the bitterness of the people who work there.
And then the scenes on the totally bleak island where Irene and Gary are building a truly awful cabin. There is a scene where Gary, in bitter, bitter weather, has a fantasy about raping a warrior-type woman that will send chills up your spin.
And you will never, never, never forget the ending of this amazing novel.
And you will undoubtedly decide that Alaska is the absolutely last place on the earth you wish to live!