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Legend of a Suicide
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I greatly enjoyed reading David Vann's Legend of a Suicide for it is an unusual book which provides a lot of insight into the painful journeys which must be taken to come to terms with the tragedies that can hit families and leave them reeling for years to come. The book is thought provoking and leads the reader in to some deep territories where things may or may not be as they seem, and readers are left to draw whatever conclusions they can from the intriguing chain of events.

The title of this book is interesting. Clearly it is about suicide, or more specifically a suicide, but why "legend" rather than say, "story" or perhaps "memoir"? And the main character, Jim Fenn: why is this name so similar to David Vann's own father, James Vann? In fact, we learn from the acknowledgements at the back of this book that David Vann is in fact writing about his father's suicide, and that the stories are fictional but "based on a lot that's true".

The thing about a legend is that it may or may not be true. Its something which has achieved an almost mythical status so I think we can say that David Vann's stories will go beyond the mere recounting of facts and will probe into the deeper meaning of his father's death, its long term effects and its outworking in the lives of those he left behind.

At first this book appears to be a single text, a continuum, but again in the acknowledgements at the back, David Vann thanks his graduate school tutors for helping him see "how the stories might become a book". And in fact we have here four linked short stories and one novella which together tell a sort of myth about the terrible events which happened to Vann when he was a young boy.

The first story, which is only 10 pages long appears to be a straightforward description of the events leading up to Jim Fenn's death, setting the scene of marital break-up, serious money problems, mid-life crises and mental problem, culminating in a shocking outcome. This may (or may not be) the basic story on which others are built, but straight-away the chronology starts to break down for the next story, "Rhoda" chronicles a short period which the young Roy (perhaps a.k.a. David) spent with his father and his new step-mother.

The story, "Legend of Good Men" seems to be a couple of years after the shocking events which opened the book, when Roy's mother is dating various men. Once more, the story is stuffed full of guns and culminates in Roy blowing being taken with a sudden fit of madness. Is it a characteristic feature of American books that guns are described in such detail? We read of .300 Magnums, .22 caliber rifles, Winchester carbines. Ruger .44s etc etc. Guns are so alien to most British people that while these names are totemic to an American, they mean little to us other than vague references in American movies.

I would say the section on Sukkwan island is the most important section of this book, and forms a substantial novella in itself. I think we can say that this is how a 15 year old boy gets back at his deceased father, by imagining a horrendous and gruesome set of events, slightly reminiscent of one of Stephen King's stories. I have no intention of spoiling this section for other people. Suffice it to say that Roy and his father go so spend the winter on a remote Alaskan island. In this section we see the utter irresponsibility of a suicidal father, his disregard for the well-being of those around him, and the terrible ways in which his decisions work out in the lives of others. It is a painful and shocking read, but also totally compelling. We read this section and it helps us understand the others - if the son's retribution is so terrible, then the events which provoked it must have been truly traumatic at a level we cannot understand unless we experience them ourselves.

The last section tires to get back to the root causes of his father's situation. Long after his death, the writer delves into the root causes of his father's disharmony by visiting an Alaskan town he lived in and attempting to re-connect with one of the key figures in his life. But things are not as expected. People change and find their own destiny, which seems to be very unconnected with the events they were involved in so long ago. The writer leaves the town without the resolution he sought.

I hope that writing this book has enabled David Vann to come to terms with the event that shaped him. The book is certainly an tumultuous journey for his readers and should I hope achieve some status as a novel significant as much for its insights as for its dramatic content.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 24 January 2010
This book got me by the throat and didn't let go. It's a curious mixture of memoir, fiction and fictionalised memoir. A novella which is book-ended by short stories. I didn't mind the shifts from first person to third person narrative, and the shifts in perspective - the writing is so compelling.( I was reminded of Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life). The central novella is dark and relentless and impossible to put down. A heart-stopping moment almost made me cry out in shock. It's like watching a car crash in slow motion. You know it must end badly but you can't stop reading. Slightly marred by occasional over-writing and curiously missing some details (how, where, did the boy and his father - trying to homestead with insufficient stores and skills on a remote Alaskan island - wash?) But this is a book I will read again. And it's one of the best I've read all year.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 27 October 2009
Legend of a Suicide is a book which is hard to classify. It has been described as a collection of short stories and is now being marketed as a novel. I think the truth is that this book is similar to Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories, in that it is a very successful book of interconnected short stories.

The book follows Roy, a young boy whose father commits suicide. The emotion in this book is pitched perfectly. The suicide of the author's own father enables him to give us an insight into the real, conflicting emotions experienced by a child put into this terrible situation. This book shows us how immersing a child into the dark, adult world is such a bewildering experience - one they don't have the knowledge to handle.

"There was nothing Roy could think of to say, so he didn't say anything. But he wondered why they were here at all, when everything important to his father was somewhere else. It didn't make sense to Roy that his father had come out here. It was beginning to seem that maybe he just hadn't been able to think of any other way of living that might be better. So this was just a big fallback plan, and Roy too, was part of a large despair that lived everywhere his father went."

The first few stories were slightly disjointed, in that I couldn't follow the narrative, but once I reached the novella of their trip into the Alaskan wilderness I was completely hooked. I found the book impossible to put down and I read the rest in a single sitting.

The writing was vivid, emotionally charged and thought-provoking. I think that this book might help relatives of suicide victims to be able to cope with their loss and it should also be read by anyone who feels that suicide is a good option, as it is the best demonstration of the devastation a suicide brings to a family I have ever seen. The number of issues raised and the power of this story make it perfect for reading groups too.

Highly recommended to anyone who loves books which are packed with emotion.
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on 25 February 2015
There is one particularly haunting story in this collection which possesses great literary merit. While the others may be in some respects weaker, they sit well with the central storyline of the book and are, in a sense, variations on a theme. I suppose that is what makes the complete collection a "Legend": an event that has shaped the narrator's consciousness is explored through numerous iterations, as if examined through facets of a glass.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
This book is beautifully written, and, as lots of reviewers have noted, the central novella is really powerful. But I don't quite understand how the whole totality fits together as a novel. I really felt quite disappointed on finishing it. The tale of a young man whose father committed suicide is told several different ways, and all of them are strong, but the book didn't actually hang together as a single work, for me. There isn't enough linking material for it to make sense. It felt to me like I was reading something not quite finished. Perhaps the real life tragedy upon which the work is based finally defeated David Vann's efforts to capture and make sense of it?

The writing is gorgeous though, and compares to other beautiful books of the American outdoors, such as Cormac McCarthy, mentioned by several others; it also made me think of A River Runs Through It. Really fantastic writing, and I would read another by him.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This is a series of linked short stories,though one of them - the best - is novella length. They tell of the shadow that the suicide of Roy's monstrous father has cast over his life, in a style that brings to mind Tobias Wolff,Ernest Hemingway and, in their close observation of the sea and fishing, Elizabeth Bishop. The story of the time Roy spends with his father on a remote Alaskan island is a masterly narrative - atmospheric and gripping to the extent that I couldn't put the book down. David Vann is a writer to watch.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I should have read some reviews before embarking on this book - then I would have known it was a series of interlinking (or overlapping) short stories rather than a linear novel. Now I realise I was not the only reader to have become very confused and puzzled part way through!

David Vann has obviously been seriously affected by the suicide of his own father and he is using his writing to try and explain and rationalise what happened. The writing is superb and the central novella Sukkwan Island is outstanding. A father takes his thirteen year old son to a cabin on the Alaskan coast with the plan to stay a year and live mostly from hunting and fishing. But the project is doomed from the start when it is soon revealed that the father does not have the skills and knowledge to survive and the son really wishes he was at home with his mother. (This 170 or so pages could easily have been expanded to make a stand-alone novel.) The theme of fathers and sons and their inability to communicate permeates the book. All the male characters are flawed - but the females fare much better.

Although I enjoyed reading Legend of a Suicide and would recommend it to others, I still feel a bit cheated by the publishers for not making it clear that this was a collection of writing rather than a novel.
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on 29 August 2014
An excellent book, beautifully written and with a truly jaw dropping moment within the pages. Best read as intended when first published in America, as a series of short stories rather than trying to work out how, why and where you are when reading it. Highly recommended.
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on 1 November 2012
still weeping softly, alternatively horrified!
cruel, captivating and capricious....
if you wan't feel good, don't read this book....then if you know a little about what life and human relationships are about, do!
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on 8 April 2013
Loved this. Dark, disturbing, surprising. A great read! I would definitely recommend as a short holiday read or a weekend paperback if it's raining cats and dogs out there.
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