You may remember that back in 2009 I read a wonderful debut work (I say work because it was a mix of short stories and a novella and yet some thought was a novel) by the author David Vann. When you read something quite as powerful, moving and shocking as ‘Legend of a Suicide’ then, if you are like me, you can’t wait for the next novel by the author. Yet when ‘Caribou Island’ arrived as an advance proof copy I was worried, would I like his new book as much as the first or could it have suffered the dreaded ‘difficult second novel’ curse?
I was relieved when I finished ‘Caribou Island’ because it was a brilliant read, 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. 8.5/10
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? ‘Caribou Island’ has left me with two thoughts first I am hoping his next novel (which I will rush out to read) blows me away by how completely different it is and two that I don’t think I ever want to live near a lake in Alaska, who knows what could befall me?