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Legend of a Suicide
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on 4 September 2013
I recall very well the publication of David Vann's Legend of a Suicide in 2008. It came with a big bang. Back then one got the impression that the critics were rushing to the podium to sing the novel's praise. As a result of all the high accolade, the novel found its way on my long, long reading list and it has taken me some 5 years to get around to reading it. Let me say I have no regrets in not giving the novel greater priority and reading it earlier. The novel has some moments where it becomes emotionally engaging but the sum of those moments does not add up to a whole great novel as was made out back in 2008.

Born on one of the remote islands of Alaska, Roy is brought up by his parents, Jim and Elizabeth, who eventually divorce. Roy has a spell living with each of his parents. Whilst with his mother he endures a number of his mother's many boyfriends. Roy also suffers from the relationship between his father and a second wife. However, the crux of the story occurs when Roy goes on an ill thought out adventure or trek with his father on Sukkwan Island. This is almost like an initiation or rite of passage for Roy but for his father it is an ill conceived opportunity to put all his troubles behind and start afresh.

The novel is structured by means of six short stories with connecting themes and issues that bind them together to make a novel. One of the interesting things about the novel is its narration and the sequencing of time. Vann begins with a first person narrator, autobiographical style, through the voice of Roy. Roy narrates the dynamics of his family's relationships and by the end of chapter 1 Roy's father has shot himself. In chapter 4 the story is taken up by a third person narrator who outlines the events of an adventure into the cold wilderness of Alaska. From here on the novel commands concentration and close attention as there are no speech quotation marks, the time sequence of major events is inverted and one is left with the impression that the major events are being looked at from another perspective, opposed to that of Roy who begins with the first person narration.

The prospective reader might think that the above can only add to what should be an interesting and gripping read. For me it did not make for an interesting read. The substantial chapter of the book is rendered with repetitive and tedious description of father and son taking hikes into the Alaskan wilderness, fishing and shooting. Further Roy's father, Jim, is prone to mistakes one of which leads to a major tragedy. I found myself over burdened by the consequences of Jim's mistakes rather than being sympathetic with Jim's character.

However, as the events are presented from the second perspective there is a twist in the story which opens up the scope for engaging with the novel. To some extent that twist in the story is disturbing and it provides for a shift from tedious description to pathos. At this stage, somewhat a little late, the novel comes alive but although Legend of a Suicide is a short novel it felt like a long wait for this shift. What also clearly emerges with this shift is the novel's main themes such as father and son relationship, the overwhelming burden of loss, the ability to endure and survive hardships and the act of remembrance. There is a wonderful brief testimony of the theme of memory that runs: "Memories are infinitely richer than their origins, I discovered, to travel back can only estrange one even from memory itself. And because memory is often all that a life or self is built on, returning home can take away exactly that."

After all the hype 5 years ago, I came to read this novel with great expectation. However, for me the novel did not live up to the hype. As mentioned above the novel has it moments when it reaches a great peak and engaged me but overall it was a disappointment.
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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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on 29 November 2014
What a strange gripping book! Open to so many interpretations - loved it !
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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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on 4 March 2016
I love David Vann & this is a great intro to his work. Not an easy ride & there is some difficult stuff in here but 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 9 September 2010
When I had read the reviews from other people on this book, the format fell into place. I did find the structure rather confusing. The book was wonderfully written, and like another reviewer it had the feeling of 'The Road'in its somewhat fatalistic outlook on life and the futility of everything.The two main characters-Roy and Jim-father and son are wonderfully portrayed, and to have their thinking about events and occurences that they are experiencing is a enjoyable aspect of the novel.
The fact that David Vann's father also committed suicide somehow gives a further insight into the actions contained in the novel, though he was a child, and may not have had any great insight into why his father killed himself.It also gives a strong insight into the bleakness and solitude that exists in this part of Alaska.Few places I would imagine where you can be truly alone.This aspect was also very poignant
I would strongly reccommend this book,as it shows good clear and thoughtful writing.
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VINE VOICEon 16 May 2012
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 24 November 2009
Forget the hype. Forget the hoo-haa about whether this is a novel, a collection of short stories, a memoir - just read this extraordinary book. At its heart - emotional, structural, intellectual - is the eponymous novella, but either side of it straddle other versions of the central event in the narrator's life, the suicide of his father. Vann tells his tales - complementary, contradictory, always compelling - in prose that re-awakens your senses to the nuances of language and of fiction. The legend he tells is both rooted in the terrible detail of life and illuminated by moments of transcendental brilliance, of baby salmon creating a peacock's tail of fabulous, life-affirming moment. Vann cites Cormac McCarthay as an influence - and this is perhaps the most bleakly beautiful fiction since The Road - but his richly detailed courtship of language and myth is as in love with landscape as, say, Thomas Hardy.

If all of this makes the book sound worthy and 'literary', let's state for the record that it is stay-up-late, page-turning. stomach-churningly immediate. I've certainly not read this year a book that I have felt so compelled to read and so sad - in every sense - to finish. Add to that a coup worthy of early Ian McEwan and you have a book that resonates with just about everything sense and sensibility you could want and that - despite the apparently gloomy subject - you will want to press upon family, friends and even strangers on the Tube. Amazing.
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on 7 June 2013
This book had very good critics and I was very attracted by the plot, the story, but I was a bit disappointed by the end. A pity.
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