Book Quote:

“In the beginning, Irene thought. There is no such thing as a beginning.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (JAN 18, 2010)

This is a richly absorbing and dark, domestic drama that combines the natural, icy world of the Alaska frontier with a story of deceptive love and betrayal. If Steinbeck and Hemingway married the best of Anita Shreve, you would get David Vann’s Caribou Island. His prose is terse and the characterizations are subtle, but knifing. Like Shreve, his characters are saturated with loneliness and disconnection with their lives, with each other, in a pit of misperception, despair and exile, in a conflict of selves that beat each other down. The topography and remoteness of this “exclave” state, a place non-contiguous physically with its legal attachment (of the US) serves as one of many metaphors to the attachments exemplified in this story.

Virginia Woolf, while attempting to write the life story of artist Roger Fry, observed: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many as one thousand.” Although this is a novel, not a biography, Vann’s characters are desperately attempting to grasp, hide and reinvent themselves, trying to fill impossible voids, reconcile the past. The author explores the links between memory and myth, the gray area between real and idea, the notion of identity, and the truth of self-deception. There is stoic Irene, haunted by a childhood of abandonment; her cruel, mulish, and spineless husband, Gary; their (often) oblivious daughter, Rhoda; and Rhoda’s puerile and feckless fiancé, Jim. Minor characters (such as their taciturn, alienated son, Mark) move through the novel and accelerate the anxiety and self-destruction of this quartet of refractory souls. They unconsciously use their mates to mirror and shadow what is desired, lost, forgotten, or never was. Vann creates a circle of repetition and insularity in a vast expanse of territory, a terror of the self at its most heinous and human.

“…if they could take all their previous selves and nail them together, get who they were five years ago and twenty-five years ago to fit closer together, maybe they’d have a sense of something solid.”

Gary is insisting on building a log cabin in the isolated Caribou Island, pulling Irene into this last-ditch retirement dream, rife with poor planning and ripe with the unspoken threat of finally leaving her. Thirty years ago he brought her to Alaska from Berkeley, another time that he tried to create an idyllic life from an idea, and failed.

“The momentum of who she had become with Gary, the momentum of who she had become in Alaska, the momentum that made it somehow impossible to just stop right now and go back to the house. How had that happened?”

“Gary was a champion at regret…Their entire lives second-guessed. The regret a living thing, a pool inside him.”

Thirty-year-old Rhoda is devoted to Jim, (who is a decade older), in an almost frantic state to get married to a man who doesn’t really love her, on the precipice of repeating her mother’s mistake. Meanwhile, Jim is on a quest to redefine himself, to combine two opposing lifestyles.

Vann does a spectacular job of engaging the reader gradually into this blistered turmoil of dissolution. The climax was compelling, creating a circle, a literary architecture of repetition. However, as penetrating and irresistible as this form was, I had a problem with the outcome. I felt that he sacrificed authenticity for symmetry. I cannot go further without giving spoilers.

Despite my vexation with the ending’s credibility, I was gripped by the power of this atmospheric story, the characters, the exquisite pacing, and the infinite amount of quotable passages. It took me a long time to remove myself from this moody, nuanced tale.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 76 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper (January 18, 2011)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
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January 18, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Alaska, Character Driven, Contemporary, Family Matters, Reading Guide, Wild West

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