Caribou Island

David Vann

Caribou Island
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Caribou Island

David Vann

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. 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. ‘This is a truly remarkable novel that should be on everyone’s must-read list for 2011.’ Big Issue ‘Transfixing and unflinching … full of finely realized moments … Comparison with Cormac McCarthy is fully justified.’ TLS ‘Mr Vann’s brilliance as a writer lies in his willingness to expose everything … A writer to read and reread; a man to watch carefully.’ Economist ‘Bleak, beautifully written and bitterly funny.’ FT ‘If Vann’s writing is notable for its capacity to render nature in the most lush, yet sharp of ways, it’s the emotional truth it contains that will leave you slightly stunned, such is its lucid power and grip. Vann’s new novel, Caribou Island, is one of the most anticipated works of the year - and, if anything, it exceeds expectations.’ Sunday Business Post (Ireland) ‘Vann, who was born in Alaska, handles conflicted feelings of love and resentment, and the raw, existential cries of ordinary people, extraordinarily well … For a few moments after this perfectly choreographed horror, it’s impossible to say anything at all.’ Washington Post ‘Vann’s first book, the story collection 'Legend of a Suicide’ (2008), earned him the acclaim of being one of the best writers of his generation. His first novel is a worthy successor. Abounding in language that heightens our senses for the next evocative metaphor, ‘Caribou Island’ gives us a climax as haunting and realized as any in recent fiction.‘ San Francisco Chronicle ’ A literary masterpiece.‘ Anchorage Daily News 'Surely one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the year … Caribou Island is a scant 300 pages, and written in prose as pellucid as the rivers he used to fish as a boy. But it says so much- about men and women, about marriage, about the desperate gap between who we want to be and who we are.’ Observer ‘Vann established himself as one of the most exciting new talents to come out of America with his short-story collection Legend of a Suicide, which was loosely based around his father’s death. This first novel, set once again in Alaska , proves it was no fluke, and that he is an extravagantly gifted and moving writer.’ Sunday Times ‘Builds on the power - and success - of his debut, Legend of a Suicide.’ The Times ‘Vann, who received acclaim for his short-story collection Legend of a Suicide (2008), renders luminous prose in this haunting tale of hardened hearts and broken dreams.’ Booklist ‘Vann’s brilliance lies in his willingness to expose all.’ starred review, Kirkus


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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