Book Quote:

“What Gary wanted was the imagined village, the return to an idyllic time when he could have a role, a set task, as blacksmith or baker or singer of a people’s stories. That’s who he really wanted to be, the “shaper,”  the singer of a people’s history, which would be one and the same. What Irene wanted was only to never be alone again, passed around, unwanted.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (JAN 18, 2010)

Many people think of Alaska as wildness with great open spaces in a mountainous wildernous with sub-arctic cold, dark and long winters, ever-light summers, bears and moose. This is not the Alaska of David Vann. His Alaska consists of what sounds like an area most likely the Tongass National Rain Forest. This is the northernmost rainforest on earth, and it extends into southeast Alaska. Trees here are huge but grow close together here much like in the Amazon. It rains up to 400 inches a year in this part of Alaska and the days are often dark and dismal with damp that cuts right through you. There is no vista in this forest; all you have are the trees that hem you in.

It is in this Alaska that Gary and Irene realize that their marriage is falling apart, that they go through the motions of one last try at redeeming their moribund marriage. They decide to build a cabin on Caribou Island, a place both isolated and isolating. Gary has no coherent plans and their cabin ends up as a bunch of sticks stuck together every which way with huge gaps everywhere. The elements are not kept out and the rain, snow and wind wails through the cabin even as the last nail is hammered crookedly in.

Irene blames Gary for her life, for not having fulfilled what she might have been without him, and Gary blames Irene for his life’s failures as well. Once he was a promising dissertation student at University of California Berkeley. Now he goes from ill-conceived project to ill-conceived project, each one failing and losing money. Irene was once a happy hippy chick who now goes weeks with horrific pain in her head for which doctors can find no source. They have two children, Mark and Rhoda. Mark is barely in their lives but Rhoda has a dream of helping them find salvation with each other.

Irene is the survivor of her mother’s suicide. Her father was cheating and her mother decided to take her own life instead of living for Irene. Rhoda is on the verge of marrying a dentist who has already begun to cheat on her during their engagement. He has things all planned out. He’ll keep switching receptionists, having affairs with them and then letting them go. It sounds like Rhoda is heading for the same train wreck as her mother and grandmother – a distant marriage and an unfaithful husband. Many of these themes appear in Vann’s brilliant first book, Legend of a Suicide.

Caribou Island has many of the same themes as Legend of a Suicide – the inability to find intimacy with others, the desire to hurt those we try to love, and not knowing how to do things right in our own lives and for others. This book is not for the weak-hearted. It is bold and brutal, never a syrupy sentence or a hi-jinks kinda laugh. It is as serious as the death of a loved one. Even aspects of the book such as boat rides take on a dire nature and I had to wonder what awful thing would come next.

This is a reader’s book. It is a book for people who love to read and it is why we read. It is one of the best books I have read recently and it knocked my socks off. More importantly, it changed how I see the world. It is THAT good.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 76 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper (January 18, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Also, see our review of a T.C. Boyle novel:



January 18, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Alaska, Character Driven, Contemporary, Literary

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.