It’s always great to have a book come out of nowhere and surprise you: when I read David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide in 2009, I knew nothing about it or its author (probably wouldn’t have read it at all had I not won a copy in a competition) – and was in no way prepared for it to blow me away as it did. Of course, the flipside of this is that the same level of surprise isn’t possible when it comes to reading something else by the same author, and that will almost inevitably have an effect on how one reacts to that new work. So, when I say that Caribou Island – Vann’s latest book, and his first novel – didn’t have quite the same impact as Legend of a Suicide… well, perhaps it was never very likely to. That doesn’t, however, stop it from being a powerful piece of work in its own right.
Caribou Island is a portrait of two relationships under strain. Gary and Irene are about to move from the Alaskan mainland to Caribou Island, to fulfil Gary’s dream of building a cabin the old-fashioned way; Irene, by the way, wants nothing of this, but hasn’t had much say in the matter. Meanwhile, the couple’s daughter Rhoda is hoping to get married to her boyfriend, Jim – though Jim has rather taken a shine to Monique, a visiting friend of Rhoda’s brother. And Monique has apparently taken a shine to Jim, despite being in a relationship of her own.
Vann’s hallmarks from Legend of a Suicide are present here: a strong sense of place, coupled with a strong sense of physicality, the work it takes to live in such landscapes; and a skilful control of mood. Right there in the first paragraph is an example of how Vann can pull the reader up short, as Irene casualy tells Rhoda how, at the age of ten, she came home one day to find her mother’s hanging body – no lead-up, no drama, just matter-of-fact; it sets a tone for the novel of tragedy never being far from the surface.
The landscape of Alaska is also used to great effect in Caribou Island, as it reflects the differing concerns of the characters. For example, Gary, who was once studying for a doctorate in Scandinavian literature, seeks from Alaska a land, or a life, redolent of those earlier times he studied. In contrast, for Monique’s boyfriend Carl, Alaska is simply a place from which to escape, as it has done nothing but destroy his relationship. And when Jim goes on a helicopter tour of the area with Monique, he sees the familiar land anew, which echoes his restlessness.
The external world reflects the internal in other ways, too, the most prominent being Gary’s cabin, which he sees as being ‘the extension of a man, a form of his own mind’ – hence, it symbolises his relationship with Irene, and Gary is equally ill-equipped for both. I’m inclined to agree with William Rycroft that the symbolism is made that bit too obvious, and that having Irene think explicitly about how building the cabin could be a metaphor for her life is overdoing it; but the entire novel remains a highly elegant construction.
There are some nicely effective contrasts in Caribou Island, such as the irony of Irene’s embracing of the wilderness towards the end, just as Gary is realising some of the drawbacks of his desire for it; and the differing trajectories of Irene’s and Rhoda’s respective relationships. What also strikes me, though, is that many of the fundamental reasons for characters’ dissatisfactions remain hidden; for all that’s revealed, I think a lot is also left unsaid. The most content character in the book seems to be Rhoda’s brother Mark; he is also one of the most distant from the reader, suggesting how elusive true happiness is within the pages of Caribou Island. It’s a bleak book, yes, but also a beautiful one.