Legend of a Suicide – David Vann

It seems strange to me that two of the best books I have read in 2009 have been within the last few weeks of it. I am also going to possibly sound like a stuck record when I tell you that my second book review this week is down to Kimbofo once again as she gave me a copy of David Vann’s ‘Legend of a Suicide’ at one of our Book Group meetings after I banged on about how much I wanted to read it on her blog. Though book gifts are always welcome there is then that awkwardness of making sure you read it asap (or in this case within three months of getting it) and then after that what happens if you don’t enjoy it? I wouldn’t know the latter this time luckily as Legend of a Suicide is marvellous, if again another difficult book to capture in words. What is it with these reviews this week, is the end of 2009 testing me?

Legend of a Suicide is less a novel and more a collection of five short stories and one novella sandwiched between them. All the stories here deal with the same subject of a father’s suicide, the effects it has on him and those around him leading up to the event and in the aftermath of it. This is a subject close to the author David Vann’s heart as his father killed himself when he was younger. Though not a work based on his own life the emotions and thoughts are very much in every page of the novel making it quite an affecting book as well as an unsettling one.

Even though each tale is quite different they are all based around Roy and his father or the effects his father has on him and others in varying ways. The first take Ichthyology looks at life through a younger Roy’s eyes as he watches his parents break up and has to deal with it by becoming interested in fish (fish is a theme throughout the book though I am not sure why). However its also an insight to his father and the life he has ended up with that this tale really brings home before the deed in the title is done. Rhoda, the second story, is about Roy’s father’s second wife and the relationship they all have giving you further insight into his life and mind. This tale actually made me laugh quite a lot and seemed darkly comical. The third instalment is also witty; A Legend of Good Men is all about all the men who his mother dates who come and go ‘like the circuses that passed through our town’.

Then comes the novella, we what I think is a novella, in the shape of Sukkwan Island. This tale is so well written and delivers such a punch half way through, I wont say anymore than I had to read the paragraph three times before I could believe what I had just read, that sadly the follow up tales Ketchikan (a tale of his fathers past as Roy revisits) and The Higher Blue (an idealisation of everything) fell a little flatter than they might have. However having said that you need all these isolated tales blanketing the middle novella for it all to work.

Sukkwan Island is just amazing writing, differing from the first person narrative of the rest of the book and written in third person, I don’t think I could put it any other way. It evolves around a year long excursion into the wild for father and son in the Alaskan wilderness. I can see why people have compared him to Cormac McCarthy though I would put this tell as a cross between McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ its remarkable, shocking and breathtaking all at once. I was horrified by it yet fascinated and mesmerised by it all at once. I read it in one sitting and couldn’t put it down.

It’s a remarkable book in so many ways, I think Vann has put all his emotions into it which therefore cannot help but pour out of the page and into the reader which is quite an experience and one that you don’t get too often. Will it make it into my Best of 2009 tomorrow? You will have to wait and see. The only reason that it might not is that I haven’t had long enough away from it to let it all settle (even the unsettling bits) with me yet, but you may very well see it in there. Who else has read this, who really wants to? I can fully recommend it.


Filed under Books of 2009, David Vann, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

21 responses to “Legend of a Suicide – David Vann

  1. I bought this with my Christmas money and can’t wait to read it…. If you, Kim and DGR all loved it, it must be brilliant. Nice review Simon.

  2. Interesting review. I’ve never heard of this book actually. I agree with you about how the last reads seem to make the ‘best of’ the year list. My last book this year was Oryx and Crake and of course it made my list. I wonder if it’s because these last books tend to be still fresh in our minds?

    • It may indeed be because they are fresh in your mind. I also think I chose a few books i had heard marvellous things about and wanted to read before the year is through. interestingly not many of my first reads of 2009 ended up in my top books of 2009 today.

  3. It’s funny that you have defined reading something ASAP as three months! That would probably be a record for me! I always seem to enjoy books that offer different perspectives on one event (am currently in the middle of Fingersmith!). The challenge for you, in making your top books list, is to filter the excitement of the recently read with those amazing books you read in January. That is always my problem anyway.

    • Hahahaha I was being slightly tongue in cheek with the three months comment, it does normally take me much much longer. In fact Kim has lent me another book I still havent read yet.

      I look forward to your thoughts on Fingersmith its one that I have been meaning to read for ages and ages.

  4. I loved this book too! It made my top 10 of books published in 2009, but won’t make my llist of favourite books read in 2009. I look forward to finding out what makes your list tomorrow.

    • Aha as you will see today Jackie I cheated a tiny bit, well not cheated is my blog my rules haha, and did a list of the best of books published in 2009 and then a best of the rest as I found this year too hard to call really.

  5. I’m going to look for this one. I have the opposite experience with my reading, the first books I read each year tend to make the best of list.

    • Ooh that is interesting. I am having a reading break now until the weekend as I want everything to be fresh and new in 2010. Probably sounds silly but every so often I need a book breather.

  6. I’m desperate to read this one but in a long queue for it at the library 😦

  7. This does sound fantastic – I find the long-short-story one of the hardest forms to get on with, but sounds like it works here.

    • This book really works and I am a bit pick about short stories and novella’s. As they are so short I dont tend to engage or if I do its all over too quick. This book definitely works as a collection as the shorter stories are really short.

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  10. Phew. I’m glad you liked this one, too! 😉 The novella is rather shocking, isn’t it? There’s that huge big WTF moment. And, while I’ve said this in other comments on other blog reviews, I’ll say it again: it has made me look at sleeping bags in a whole new light. Hehehe.

    • Hahaha I am loving WTF moments, I think in books we need more WTF moments. And I totally get you with the sleeping bag thing… It may be quite some time before I can sleep in one of those without the visions this book brings.

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