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on 26 April 2011
This was chosen for our Reading Group and it provoked one of the best discussions that we have had for some time.
Most people had enjoyed the book to a greater or lesser extent, except for one person who described it as "just sex and scenery". The rest of us did not necessarily think this was a bad thing! We thought that the magnificent descriptions of the magnificent scenery were a valuable part of the book and constant references to the intense beauty and emptiness of the area was far more than a mere backdrop to the story. It was essential to understand the environment to understand the people involved in this tragic situation.
We wondered if the same events could just as easily have taken place elsewhere, for example inner city bed-sit land, as it is possible to be extremely lonely and isolated from other people anywhere. We decided that although these two people would have been unhappily married wherever they lived the end was almost inevitable from the moment they moved to Alaska.
We all agreed that the author presented an excellent account of ways in which human relationships fail and through this, a glimpse of how they might actually be made to work. We all hoped very much that Rhoda would buck the trend and leave her dentist before it was too late, but were not surprised that she didn't. One person is still hoping that her parents' tragedy will shake her enough that she will realise the mistake she is about to make, but the rest of us are not that hopeful!
One person wondered if we are all destined to turn into our parents as history seemed to be repeating itself for the third generation in this story! We had an amusing few minutes, all hoping desperately that this was not happening, but concluding that it probably was true after all!
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on 15 June 2011
"Misery loves company, he said. And all you wanted to do was drag me down with you. You're a mean old b*tch. You don't say it but you're thinking it, always judging. Gary doesn't know what he's doing. Gary hasn't planned a thing, hasn't thought ahead. Always a little bit of judgment. A mean old b*tch."
"You're a monster", she said.
"See? I'm a monster. I'm the f****** monster." (Vann, 2011: 265-6)

This here is the torturous back-and-forth between Gary and Irene, a middle-aged couple who have, on the directive of Gary, decided to build a log cabin on an Alaskan island and live there. This is the core of David Vann's Caribou Island, the follow up to his intriguing Legend of a Suicide. Caribou Island pretty much shares the same setting as Legend; the cold, isolated Alaskan wilderness, and draws parallels with Legend's story; it's momentum being driven by the mental anguish of a central character. Also thrown into Caribou's mix are Gary and Irene's grown children, Rhoda and Mark - the former a veterinary nurse dating Jim, an older dentist who's unfaithful to her, the latter a distant young man who works various jobs. For the first two-thirds of the novel, two of Mark's friends, a couple from D.C., Monique and Carl also feature; an unsuited couple, she promiscuous and daring, he hapless and out of his depth. Gary is introverted and is driven by the ill-thought out plan of moving permanently to a log cabin which he would build with Irene. Irene abides but is certain Gary's plan is just a way of breaking their relationship and that he will soon leave her. And here is essentially the main problem of Caribou Island: the characters (with mild exception of Rhoda) are all obnoxious, either self-pitying or selfish characters. And there's only so much one can take of the complaining and misery of these people. Reality entails enough of this misfortune.

Irene develops a crippling, psychosomatic illness early in the novel, one that grips her for the duration of her story. Gary pushes on with his plan, often failing to understand his wife's suffering. When X rays show Irene has no physical malady and therefore cannot be satisfactorily treated, Gary at times believes Irene is trying to punish him through her illness. He's convinced Irene is against him, she's convinced Gary wants to pull away from her. Rhoda becomes increasingly concerned for the well being of her mother but can find no support from either her apathetic, vacant brother, Mark or her aloof would-be husband, Jim. Meanwhile Jim, forseeing his "inevitable" marriage to Rhoda, makes a play for Monique, a younger, wilder version of Rhoda. He pursues Monique, deceiving Rhoda as to what he's doing, and ends up having to play a number of aggravating and silly games to bed Monique. Monique is young and carefree and provides the only instance of titillation in the story (apart from her sexual exploits, there really is no other compassion or intimacy apart from a few pitying hugs here and there) but becomes increasingly unlikeable, so much so she exits the story ignominously just over the half way point. Her luckless boyfriend, Carl is plainly pathetic, failing at everything in Alaska; his girlfriend, fishing, camping, and ultimately enjoying his time there. Mark is frankly detestable; devoid of empathy or concern with anything but himself, his dialogue is generally short and irritatingly weak. That brings me to a distinct problem with the novel; exempting the intense fights between Gary and Irene, the dialogue is frequently bland and lazy. At times it seems Vann lost interest and just threw it in to get on with it.

The novel does have it's strengths; there's an encounter between Jim and Monique which is exciting and the final verbal fight between Gary and Irene grabs attention and is even cathartic. Infrequently I found myself imagining possible or alternative outcomes to the scene that was at hand. So Vann certainly is adept at building the scenarios. But too often he lets the story get bogged down with either lifeless words or boring sidesteps, like pointlessly drawn out descriptions of fishing (Vann being a fishing enthusiast himself comes as no surprise). Comparisons to Legend of a Suicide are unavoidable, but what worked in Legend does not work in Caribou Island. The young lad from Legend was unspoiled by adult cynicism and vacancy, his father was a deeply troubled and at times ridiculously bad parent but his relationship to his son had a stronger, more understandable and empathetic bond than any that feature in Caribou Island. The son takes his revenge on his selfish father, a remarkable and original twist. Legend was also more unconventional; it comprised of three parts, connected in theme. Caribou Island takes the conventional linear narrative route and now Vann's writing loses it power. Or maybe because Legend was slightly more closer to home for Vann than Caribou is, it is reflected in his first work trumping its follow up. And I can't leave it here before mentioning the end of Caribou Island: the last three pages follow Rhoda and are probably the three strongest pages in the book. She, the only remotely likeable character of all and the novel's only hope, is levied with an awful outcome. Her ending is an exercise in cruelty but it delivered poetically. But that outcome she gets is what transpires between her parents. What happens is described graphic and persuasive detail, an accomplished delivery. But what it is that happens just struck me as ridiculous and had "Hollywood" all over it. I didn't find myself in shock, I found myself not able to digest it because it just seemed plain ridiculous.

While Caribou Island has a swift pace, can be leafed through relatively quickly (unlike the more complicated Legend, a book though shorter in length than Caribou has more depth), and is not too long - 293 pages - the novel is disappointing and not highly recommended.

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David Vann first came to attention with Legend of a Suicide, a fictionalised account of his father's suicide which left readers wondering where fact stopped and fiction started. Its three stories acted as a sort of prolonged meditation on suicide and the reasons for it, while digressing into some horrific stories of how a teenager may seek retribution on an erring father.
Vann's second novel Caribou Island has much in common with his first, both in theme (suicide) and location (Alaska). The cover says it all. This is a bleak and inhospitable country, best left to bears and eagles and I am sure the Alaskan tourist authority will not be thanking Vann for his depiction of this dark and threatening region.

Irene and Gary, a retired couple have a relationship based on passive-aggressive hostility. Gary always wanted to be a back-woodsman, but got "trapped" into taking a regular job in order to raise a family. He hates his wife so much that he persuades her to help him build a log cabin on an uninhabited island (as though the community they already live in isn't barren enough!). Irene's reasons for joining in this mad escapade are never made clear, but she seems to have some sense of marital obligation which readers soon find is going to lead her to disaster. Vann's accounts of Gary and Irene's attempts to get the building materials across to the island in a little metal boat depict a level of suffering which is sufficient in itself to show the hardships in store for this ill-fated couple.

Meanwhile, their daughter Rhoda lives with her dentist-fiancé Jim. She is a well-intentioned girl who tries to save her mother from Gary's mad plans, but really, poor Rhoda has enough problems of her own due to the hidden philanderings of deeply unpleasant tooth-doctor Jim. What I'd really like to do now is to talk about what happens to Gary and Irene, but just to touch on it would spoil the book. Its pretty dramatic and Vann holds nothing back in his description of it. But then he did that in Legend too, so if you survived that you'll survive this.

I think it will by now be clear that this book is dark. It is so dark that un-remitting gloom may be a better description of it. Van is a skilled writer and his ability to provide an air of menace and impending disaster is second to none. Anyone who liked Legend of a Suicide will like this one too, but Vann seems to have tried to avoid the pitfalls of the second-novel by recreating many of the themes of the first.

Its hard to know how to summarise my feelings about this book. I'm giving it four out of five overall, because it really is well-written. The missing fifth star says something about it being a little too much like Legend, and also a little about what I might describe as unremitting gloom. But if you like that sort of thing, then go for it - its a good read and you'll find it well worthwhile.
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on 17 March 2011
I have not read David Vann's first novel, Legend of a Suicide, so I came to Caribou Island with fresh eyes, you might say, and had no idea what to expect.

Caribou Island is set in the wilderness of Alaska and follows Gary and Irene and the breakdown of their marriage. The setting is unrelentingly bleak and harsh and the story is along the same lines.

Gary and Irene are two people who seem to have wandered into a life which neither of them wanted. Neither has the life they dreamed about, in fact, nobody in the novel has the life they believed they were entitled to. Life, for these characters, is deeply disappointing.

Gary had, and still has, dreams of being a pioneer forging a minimalist life in the backwoods. To that end he and Irene are hauling logs out to Caribou Island in all weathers to build a log cabin. Irene, who is haunted by the death of her mother, has developed a blinding pain in her head and it's never clear why she is so desperate to stay with Gary or why she participates in the folly of the log cabin but what is clear is that Gary and Irene are heading for disaster and when it comes it is profoundly shocking.

The novel also follows Rhoda, Gary and Irene's well meaning grown-up daughter, who lives with her rather unpleasant dentist boyfriend, Jim. Rhoda and Jim are another two people who seem to have sleepwalked into their situation Rhoda because she wants to get married and Jim because Rhoda was available. Rhoda is, perhaps, the most sympathetic character in the novel and you can't help hoping that she will wake up to what Jim really is and move on with her own life. There are other characters who make appearances through the novel like Gary and Irene's drug-addicted son Mark and they are all similarly dissatisfied with life.

I won't deny that Caribou Island is bleak and gloomy, in fact it's inexorably bleak, but it is beautifully written and the disappointment felt, especially by Gary and Irene, is palpable and deeply moving. It is a stunning novel about disenchantment with life.
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David Vann is a writer new to me but I was intrigued by a discussion of this book in a radio arts programme.

Some people have compared David Vann to Cormac McCarthy. The major similarity is the lack of speech marks (but David Vann does at least use apostrophes). However, I think that the Cormac McCarthy books I have read are much more relentlessly "masculine" than this one. David Vann appears to show a much more feminine sensibility.

Caribou Island is about dysfunctional relationships set in a fairly remote part of Alaska.

The central couple in this book is Gary and Irene, who are both in their 50s. Gary came to Alaska while a post graduate student at Berkeley (University of California). His major was English and his specialty was the Norse(?) saga, Beowulf. He was attracted to Alaska by its Skandinavian landscape and communities although his life has been one of perpetual disappointment and failure. Irene is a local woman of Icelandic stock who is haunted by her experiences at the age of 10 when her father abandoned her family and her mother committed suicide. Together, they pursue Gary's latest obsession with building a log cabin on a distant island and setting up home. The book partly covers their claustrophobic relationship and experience of this scheme, which see Irene gradually losing her mind.

Gary and Irene have two children, Rhoda and Mark. Rhoda, aged 30, seems the most rounded and sensible character in the book. She is engaged to Jim and craves the affluent life and apparent stability that he can bring her. Jim, who works as a dentist, appears to have some major commitment issues and part of the book concerns his dalliance with a slightly messed up student who has come up on holiday to visit Mark.

Mark, like Gary, is a graduate of a prestigious American university (Brown), yet like his father, he stays in Alaska and pursues a living as a fisherman. He seems to spend a lot of his life stoned on marijuana and does not appear to take any of his parents' problems seriously. Disappointingly, his character seems the least developed in the book.

Alaska in the book appears to be a beautiful but at the same time bleak place and one to which most of the characters in the book are seeking some kind of escape from themselves.

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on 26 January 2011
I was relieved when I finished `Caribou Island' because it was a brilliant read and after Vann's debut collection I had high hopes before starting it, though I can't quite say I enjoyed it as with its subject matter to say you enjoyed such a novel might make you sound a bit mad. We meet spouses Irene and Gary both in their mid-fifties and who seem separately rather unhappy and having slight mid-life crises. Irene's way of coping seems to be the onset of a mysterious disease, doctors say there is nothing wrong and yet she is sure there is and often finds herself unable to get out of bed for the pain. Gary's answer to his situation is action, though you sometimes wonder if it's his way of trying to push his wife away, and to build a dream log cabin on the remote island near their home in Alaska. This is no easy task and with the atmospheric and tempestuous backdrop and Vann's power with a sense of menace behind every page you know you are on a journey that might make for rather uncomfortable reading (not in a gory sense), though you have to read a long anyway.

I was worried with its opening paragraph of a hanging that `Caribou Island' would be very like its predecessor and in some ways it actually is. There is the Alaskan backdrop, the ominous sense throughout, the stunning writing and the feeling at any moment the author could take you to another darker place. I did wonder if Vann had felt safest having the similarities around him moving from collection to novel or if he just hadn't finished with the subject and its setting yet? Unlike `Legends of a Suicide' when awful things happened (which of course I won't give away, I wasn't left shocked. I sort of figured what was coming early on whereas in one scene in `Legends' I actually had to put the book down a while and get my head round it.

Yet `Caribou Island' does beat `Legends' on several points. Rather than a father son relationship, which is seriously lacking in this novel as Gary's son Mark is rather distant from his family as a whole and would rather do `extreme fishing' or get stoned than spend any time with them, we look instead at the relationships with couples. As well as Gary and Irene we have their daughter Rhoda and her dentist fiancé Jim who isn't the initial nice guy we might want him to be, and you do want him two as Rhoda seems so nice. I did notice that in all the couples, bar Carl and Monique where with her femme fatale elements and his utter doormat behaviour buck the trend, that men seem to be depicted as utter swine's whilst women come across more rounded, accommodating and rather dependable. I mean would you cook your fiancé dinner after he's not spoken to you for two days or maybe help your husband shift logs across a lake in a storm for an isolated cabin you have no desire to live in?

There is a lot to mull over with `Caribou Island' and much to discuss, so it would make a brilliant book group choice. David Vann's writing is top notch, you can feel the atmosphere and sense of place in every page, and he excels in delivering that often hard to get combination of having wonderful description, characterisation and page turning qualities all in one book. Yet, as you might be able to guess and is the only slight flaw for the book, I found it so hard to write about it without comparing it to his previous work. The settings and themes are in some ways so similar. However regardless of that this is a really compelling book, that I know will stay with me and grow on me more and more, it's certainly one that I would highly recommend you read.
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David Vann's latest novel is imbued with the sights, smells and sounds of Alaska. The isolation and emptiness of the landscape is vividly evoked and hauntingly reflected in the isolation and loneliness of the characters.
Irene, 55 years old and recently retired, is haunted by her abandonment as a child and desperate to save her floundering marriage. Her husband Gary, fighting his own demons, sees their future in a hand-built cabin on uninhabited Caribou Island. He persuades Irene to support him, but building without plans or advice and battling the elements seems likely to push Irene over the edge.
This is a bleak book, but totally absorbing, and a brilliantly drawn picture of a marriage in crisis. The main protagonists are all very well realised, as are most of the minor ones - although one in particular seems to be more of a male-fantasy figure than a well-rounded character. But that apart, David Vann's writing is powerful and evocative, whether describing emotions and relationships or landscape and life in the wilds of Alaska.
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on 20 October 2012
This is a book that reflects its setting. The style is spare and the themes are dark. The cold, forbidding atmosphere of Caribou Island and the surrounding area just add to the feeling of desperation and fear. The writing is beautiful in many places, with a restrained style that allows the stark facts to show through. The book centres around a troubled marriage, with the wife depressed and the husband angry, but the problems radiate out through the more minor characters too. Everyone in the book is damaged in some way, everyone is lacking something.

As I hope I've made clear, this is certainly not a cheery or uplifting read. If you want to be inspired or to escape or to meet likeable characters you can identify with, you probably won't like this book. But if you want something dark, sad, raw and true, I'd recommend Caribou Island.
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on 6 July 2013
Gary is trying to follow his dream & build a log cabin on a desolate island; Irene is just trying to keep her marriage together. Daughter Rhonda is desperate to keep her family together but son Mark seems indifferent to everything.
The book is beautifully written & it's this poetic style that made the book for me. It's almost lyrical in the telling & some lines I reread over to savour them.It's incredibly descriptive & you feel like you are in Alaska battering the cold & wet alongside the characters. It's a sad little story though & inkeeping with the grim Alaskan scenery, the characters seemed a bit broken & no-one appeared very happy but somehow, that works.
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on 6 December 2015
There are already some very good, serious and accurate reviews of Caribou Island on this site. Suffice to say this book haunted me for days, (possibly because I am an exact contemporary of the main, self destructive protagonists). Here is a portrait of a marriage that everyone in a long relationship should read and consider very, very carefully. And it's un-put-down-able too!
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