Caribou Island: book review

Caribou Island, by David Vann. Publisher: Harper (January 18, 2011). Hardcover. 304 pg.

Alaska, an attraction for both adventurers and loners, is the ideal setting for a novel about crumbling relationships that hide behind happy facades. When I read David Vann’s collection of semi-autobiographical stories, Legend of a Suicide, the introspective darkness of the stories impressed me. Caribou Island explores many of the same emotions: isolation, regret, settling. The storytelling flows with honesty and grace. The simple writing provides depth, empathy and a glimpse into the thoughts of each character.

In the novel, the main focus is on Gary and Irene, a 50-something couple who moved to Alaska three decades ago. They met in California where Gary was completing his PhD dissertation and Irene taught elementary school. Gary convinced Irene to travel to Alaska as an adventure and two adult children later [Rhoda, a planner, and Mark, a carefree guy], the couple still lives in small-town Alaska and now they resent each other. Gary’s goal is to build a cabin on the isolated Caribou Island. Irene’s not so happy about being stranded out there through the winter, completely cut off from her daughter Rhoda and civilization. As a child, Irene found her mother hanging when she arrived home from school. How much does this effect Irene today? She may not have dealt with it completely and as her marriage deteriorates so does her physical and mental health. Only recently did Irene tell her daughter Rhoda about it and the two women have a close mother-daughter relationship. The magic of Caribou Island is that the content can be as sad, cold and unforgiving as Alaska’s weather and as stunning as its landscape.

Vann remains brutally honest about relationships from the beginning. It seems that Gary and Irene settled with each other. Both realize they could have and should have done better. There is much focus on that fact that the men seem to have more options and choices in marriage than the women do. I’m not sure I can agree with that. For instance, Rhoda, Irene and Gary’s daughter, has been living with a successful dentist, Jim, for several years. She’s waiting for him to propose. Recently however, Jim had an affair and now thinks that he can be safe by marrying Rhoda and have affairs on the side. Why marry Rhoda? She cooks his dinner whenever he wants it. Even gets up to get him more to drink. She cleans and just does whatever he wants. Yet if she moved anywhere but this small town in Alaska, Rhoda might have many more options in men.

Both Irene [Gary had seemed so promising. A doctoral student, bright enough to get into Berkeley. She felt tied to him, felt wanted, felt like she belonged.] and Rhoda [What she didn’t understand about Jim was where his filling was. Nice golden crust on the outside. A dentist, with money and respect. When she first told people she was dating him, they were all impressed. His house fit the dream, too. A buttery life.] suffer inferiority complexes in that their partners could have chosen smarter women instead of safe women. Is this due to lack of selection or because the men are faulty specimens? Caribou Island delves deep into these relationships and in doing so explores why we choose to be with whom we end up with long-term and whether we are truly fulfilled and retain our independent spirits.

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David Vann website.

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