Caribou Island is a book that could divide opinion easily. David Vann’s Alaskan tragedy is one that drains the reader’s mind, mainly due to the intense subject matter. Much of the novel revolves around family breakdown, treachery and despair. It’s an utterly bleak book and one filled with utterly horrible characters.
In fact during my read, there wasn’t one member of the cast that I found endearing or likeable. Many of them are just nasty people, people who care little for consequences of their actions. It makes for a difficult read as much of the plot can grate against our better judgements and our ethics and morals.
Based around a couple, Gary and Irene, who are building a log cabin on the remote and titular, Caribou Island. We see their family come and go throughout the story and interact with the central premise of this couple’s breakdown of their marriage.
Vann uses beautiful and wonderful writing to highlight this angst within his plot. Much of that writing is used to depict the harsh surroundings of Alaska. Vann writes about how desolate and barren the land is and usually his prose follows monumental moments in the story to heighten the tension between the members of the cast.
Unfortunately, despite the fantastic skill with which David paints his world in words, it is inevitably lost to the reader as we plod through the novel with our dreary cast. It’s not because any of them are boring, they’re just hate filled, miserable, whining and bitter people. Each one has their own issues and most of them deal with them by creating more.
One such issue happens with dentist, Jim (who is partnered to the Daughter of our central couple). Bored by his relationship with Rhoda, he fears that life will become tedious as he is forced to sleep with the same woman. Rather than face that fear he proceeds to cheat on his girlfriend. It’s a moment in the book that fills you with hatred for this weak man.
Yes, books are meant to highlight the weaker moments in humanity, but it would be nice to have had a balance. But that never arrives and by the end there is a sense of wanting it to end. Not, because of boredom. The plot itself and the machinations are entertaining but all you want is to leave these characters behind and relieve yourself of this burden. Thankfully the ending is a crescendo of emotion that many will never see coming and one that will stay in your mind for a long time after.
And it’s that latter point that would force me to recommend this book. Once you’ve pulled your feet from the river of despair and plodded to the last 30 pages, the book becomes something very different. Read it, if only for Vann’s writing and that ending that will linger for days.
Caribou Island is available now