Posts Tagged Caribou Island

book review: Aquarium


Aquarium By David Vann.
Grove Atlantic| March 2015.|266 pages |$24.00| ISBN: 978-0-8012-2352-7

Rating: ****/5*

David Vann writes dark and introspective in an appealing, engrossing manner. He’s one of my favorite authors. I interviewed him for his last novel Goat Mountain. His characters struggle with complex yet simple issues involving families and quiet brutality. There’s a brutal hunting accident in Goat Mountain, suicide in Caribou Island, unimaginable family tragedy and matricide in Dirt (my favorite of his works) or getting into the psyche of a school shooter in Last Day on Earth. His collection of stories Legend of a Suicide introduced readers to his darker themes and potent writing style. Dark beautiful writing isn’t for everyone. I tend to gravitate toward dark music and prefer darker themed, well-written novels and memoirs.

This is Vann’s first novel centered on a female protagonist. Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives in Seattle with her dockworker single mother. Older now, Caitlin looks back on this time with the wisdom one gains through age and experience. There’s a lighter tone than previous works until events draw to a boiling point for Caitlin and her mother. Every day after school Caitlin visits the aquarium to study the fish while waiting for her mom to finish work and retrieve her. She finds the various fish and sea life fascinating and allows herself contemplation and solitude.

“At twelve, I had only the sense of pressure, some premonition, riding each surge and waiting for the counterpull, believing, perhaps, that all would release at some point. Each day was longer than the days now, and my own end not yet possible. It was a simpler mind, more direct and responsive. We live through evolution ourselves, each of us, progressing through different apprehensions of the world, at each age forgetting the last age, every previous mind erased. We no longer see the same world at all.”

The aquarium becomes synonymous to real life. What Caitlin sees in the tanks she can directly relate to her emotions, her relationships and the girl she is now. At home Caitlin finds herself as stuck as the aquatic life in the aquarium. Vann writes: “Back in our aquarium, as territorial and easily found as any fish. We had only four places to hide in this tank: the couch, the bed, the table, and the bathroom.” When you’re young you might have some hopes for the future but you also remain tempered in your reality. Particularly if your reality is subsidized housing, ramen noodles, single parent no siblings bleak. When Caitlin wants something new or wants to go somewhere, her mother reminds her that she’s working so that Caitlin can survive. She’ll say: “It doesn’t make any sense. Welcome to the adult world, coming soon. I work so I can work more. I try not to want anything so maybe I’ll get something. I starve so I can be less and more. I try to be free so I can be alone. There’s no point to any of it. They left out that part.” She gets a real guilt trip. That’s a lot to endure. The mom also has a boyfriend and when he’s around Caitlin’s often quickly consigned to the background.

An old man befriends Caitlin at the aquarium. Her extensive knowledge and interest impresses him and they chat about everything. Then one day he wants to take her to introduce him to her mother. This involves an unraveling to an already precarious lifestyle. Turns out he’s her grandfather who took off on her mom over 15 years ago and left her to care for her dying mother alone. Her mom had to drop out of school. She tells Caitlin: “And now I have the worst jobs a person can have, with no money and no future. We’ll be okay, and you don’t need to worry, but I won’t be able to become anything.” Caitlin quickly learns that childhood isn’t always easy. But she’s not grown-up enough to realize that in time memories fade. Past traumas heal. Or there’s that possibility. In one alarming scene, Caitlin’s mother wants Caitlin to suffer the same indignity and hard work she did when she cared for her mother. She’s fed up that her father wants a relationship with his granddaughter. So vivid and disturbing. What is the end game? Why? There’s a resolution but the most important message might be: “The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable.”

Currently a professor at the University of Warwick in England and honorary professor at University of Franche-Comte in France, Ivy-educated Vann lives the ex-pat life and might be more popular abroad than in the states. For one thing, many readers only want to read likeable characters and one finds many awful characters in Vann’s work. His dark, meditative writing likely won’t be discussed with a bottle of wine at a book club. Everything he writes compels me to keep reading because he’s such an impressive writer. His ability to fabricate stories about the most unimaginable events and catastrophes with grace and clarity impresses me.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Grove Atlantic.

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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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