three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
By: 
David Vann
user_rating: 
0

A-Caribou IslandDavid Vann is professor of creative writing at the University of San Francisco. His acclaimed story collection, Legend of a Suicide (2008), explores dark and desperate lives in his native state of Alaska.

The Story: Irene and Gary, an unhappily married, mismatched couple, live on Alaska's remote Kenai Peninsula. When Irene retires, she finds she can no longer avoid Gary's dream of building a cabin across the lake on Caribou Island. She also suspects that her husband plans to leave her after the cabin is constructed. On the mainland, their daughter Rhonda dreams of marrying her boyfriend Jim, a dentist who has no plans of matrimony, or fidelity. As Irene and Gary struggle with backbreaking labor and bitter weather, Irene must come to terms with a mysterious illness and her husband's festering animosity.
Harper. 304 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780061875724

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The oncoming train wreck in Caribou Island is unmistakable, but one hopes against hope that it is avoidable. Vann isn't delivering happy endings, but he is delivering life in crystalline, unforgettable prose." Robin Vidimos

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite the crushing sorrow of Caribou Island, it progresses with tremendous momentum. Inspired by the experience of his stepmother's parents, this story of a family in southern Alaska comes to us in a series of vibrant moments as bracing, invigorating and finally as deadly as the icy water that surrounds these characters." Ron Charles

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Caribou Island is less idiosyncratic in style and structure than Legend of a Suicide, though still distinct, with clipped prose, multiple narrators and no quotation marks. ... Vann ... nails his locale--the small towns and wilderness, the tourist trade, and the endeavors engaging his characters." J. David Santen Jr.

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"David Vann portrays a failing marriage with stinging precision. The slow boil of pent-up resentments rang so true, I found myself wanting reassurance from my own spouse that all was well. ... Abundant point-of-view shifting in the novel offers revealing vantage points, but we feel crowded by at least one too many protagonists." Wayne Harrison

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[W]hile Vann's first full-length novel won't do much for Alaska tourism, it triumphs in its juxtaposition of claustrophobia-inducing relationships against the forbidding vastness of our 49th state. ... Vann uses chiseled phrases and verb-less declarations to evoke the natural ruggedness of the setting as well as the character's emotional distress." Tyrone Beason

Critical Summary

The Washington Post advises readers to "approach David Vann's first novel the way you would a fresh grave--with a mixture of fascination and fear." It is good advice. Vann creates an indelible portrait of both a marriage and the Alaska wilderness that is both mesmerizing and grim. Critics also described Caribou Island as literary without being pretentious, with unexpected bursts of humor. Still, the novel's particular style, changing perspectives, and depressing themes are not for everyone. Yet overall, if the Alaska tourism board may cringe at the unromantic images Vann evokes, most readers will find much to enjoy within the pages of this "beautifully gloomy" (Seattle Times) first novel.