Caribou Island

David Vann

Caribou Island
Penguin Books Ltd
United Kingdom
27 January 2011

Caribou Island

David Vann

A great American novel from the new Cormac McCarthy

On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unravelling.

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 out to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to patch together the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place.

Across the water on the mainland, Irene and Gary’s grown daughter, Rhoda is starting her own life. She fantasizes about the perfect wedding day, whilst her betrothed, Jim the dentist, wonders about the possibility of an altogether different future.

From the author of the massively-acclaimed Legend of a Suicide, comes a devastating novel about a marriage, a couple blighted by past shadows and the weight of expectation, of themselves and of each other. Brilliantly drawn and fiercely honest in its depiction of love and disappointment, David Vann’s first novel confirms him as one of America’s most dazzling writers of fiction.


In 2009 I read and reviewed David Vann’s brilliant short-story collection, Legend of a Suicide. It turned out to be a highlight for me that year and I wasn’t shy in singing its praises. I was pleased to have customers returning to me, raving and excited to have had it put in their hands. They felt, as I had, that they had discovered a gifted young author, writing with the maturity of an older American master. It’s no surprise to me that my reading copy of his first novel, Caribou Island, is stamped with a TLS quote, ‘He walks in the tracks of Cormac McCarthy.’

The story begins with Gary and Irene hauling logs out to Caribou Island, Alaska in a fierce storm. These logs are to be used in building a cabin. Irene is hesitant about isolating themselves on the distant patch of wilderness, and leaving behind Rhoda and Mark, their two adult children, but she has been beaten down by a life that’s the product of childhood trauma and 30 years of Gary’s harebrained schemes, of which this is another. Rhoda is concerned as her mother suffers from depression and a mystery illness that could be a figment of her imagination. This comes at a time when Rhoda is feeling a reliance on her mother, as her marriage to local dentist Jim looms nearer. Jim secretly has a different viewpoint on this marriage and an attitude to his relationship with Rhoda that she certainly wouldn’t support. Meanwhile, Mark’s apathetic response to his parents’ situation is driving a deeper wedge between the siblings.

Vann has once again written a powerful and moving tribute to the love of a child for their parent. Although the year is young, I feel that this will be one of my favourites for 2011.

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