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October 03, 2022

Caribou Island: Book Review

By Wendy Robards

Caribou Island, by David Vann.

They were going to build their cabin from scratch. No foundation, even. And no plans, no experience, no permits, no advice welcome. Gary wanted to just do it, as if the two of them were the first to come upon this wilderness. - from Caribou Island, page 4 -

Gary and Irene have been married a long time, living most of their lives in the desolate wilderness of Alaska. Their two children are now grown up -- Rhoda looking forward to marrying her dentist boyfriend Jim, and Mark living with his girlfriend while he makes a living fishing in the unpredictable waters of the bay. No one is happy in this novel of failing relationships, disloyalty, escapism from reality, and regrets. Caribou Island tells the story of a marriage sliding into violence and uses the backdrop of the Alaskan wilderness as a symbol of the isolation of the characters.

David Vann's writing has been compared with that of Cormac McCarthy -- and for good reason. The starkness of the prose, the realistic and razor sharp dialogue (absent quotation marks), and the hard-hitting plot that moves relentlessly forward toward disaster reads very much like a McCarthy novel. But, Vann has his own style, a way of getting inside his characters' heads which is uniquely his own. Gary is a brilliant character -- a man who could have been a success in anything he chose, but instead he escapes to the wilds of Alaska where he fails at everything.

He had lived almost his entire adult life in exile, in Alaska, a self-exile as good as any sea, and he wanted now to experience the very worst this storm could throw at him. - from Caribou Island, page 190 -

Irene has followed Gary into his self-imposed exile out of her unquestioning love for him. But as the seams of their marriage begin to unravel, desperation begins to drive her toward a brutal understanding of how much she has lost.

Caribou Island moves forward like a train gathering momentum and heading toward certain disaster. There can be no good end, and yet the reader cannot stop reading. And this is what is most compelling about Vann's writing: tragedy is just around the corner, but we cannot look away. As the conflict between Irene and Gary grows, so too does the inevitability of the plot.

This is a dark and psychologically terrifying novel about the dissolution of a marriage. It haunted me. David Vann writes with honesty and sharp-edged realism that is hard to ignore. Not every reader will want to travel through this story with Vann, but for those who do, it will be a ride they will not soon forget.

Readers who enjoy noir and literary fiction, who have respected the writing of authors like Cormac McCarthy, and who like psychological thrillers will undoubtedly be impressed with Caribou Island.

Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars out of five.

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".

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Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-02-14
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