Review: Caribou Island

Caribou Island

Caribou Island
By David Vann
(Harper, Hardcover, 9780061875724, January 2011, 304pp.)

The Short of It:

The path from normalcy to insanity is literally a mere boat ride away.

The Rest of It:

Gary and Irene have been married for 30 years. Their marriage is falling apart but they are held together by a very thin thread. When Gary decides to build a log home on the small island of Caribou,  located on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Irene sees it for what it is. Their last chance to make the marriage work, or a sign that it will never work and that they have failed miserably. What takes Gary sometime to realize, Irene has already realized and partially accepted.

While they are trying to put this cabin together, Gary and Irene’s grown daughter, Rhonda has problems of her own. She is dating Jim, a dentist. He’s well-off, successful and safe. But Jim has his own secrets. As Rhonda ponders what is going on with her parents, she can’t help but think about her own relationship.

These are troubled times.

This is not a happy story. There are no happy people here. In fact, what you have are miserable characters who are wrought with loneliness. So lonely, that being together is better than being apart and trust me, these people should be apart. As depressing as this all sounds, and it does get rather depressing here and there, the story is very compelling. Vann’s writing is lovely and sad and brutally honest. It’s scratchy and raw and there were times when I was uncomfortable reading, but only because Gary and Irene’s story seemed so real. You know how it is when you are with a couple who is fighting? How you try to ignore the tension yet it’s impossible to do so? That’s how it was for me reading this book. The tension is everywhere, yet I couldn’t put it down.

Halfway through the story, I knew where the story was heading, but in no way did it prepare me for what actually happened. I reached that last page and the air was sucked right out of me. I had read Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and had a similar feeling when I finished that one but these characters seemed more real…as if they could be people I know. That made it more personal to me and what marriage hasn’t seen trouble every now and then? The images that Vann created are still floating around in my head today.

Caribou Island is a moving account of a marriage gone wrong and although it’s bleak, it’s very thought-provoking and Vann does wonderful things with the setting. You don’t enjoy a story like this, but you experience it and appreciate it on a different level.  Vann is a very talented writer and at this point, I’d read anything by him.

Note from Ti: I also listened to this on audio afterward and it’s great on audio as well.

Source: Borrowed

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41 thoughts on “Review: Caribou Island”

  1. Hi Ti !

    I think it’s the first time I comment here (even if we “met” on Wallace blog), so I prefer to warn you I’m French which could explain my English.

    Your review is very inspiring. I wasn’t very interested in reading this book but you give me food for thoughts… Not for now (wouldn’t be a good idea) but I add it to my TBR list.

  2. I’ve been hearing a lot about this book. I really want to read it but the only thing not making me pick it right away is the depressing nature of the story. So hopefully, someday soon I will read this one.

    1. It’s not the type of book you eagerly pick up (initially) but it’s hard to put down once you do. I felt the same way with his other book, Legend of a Suicide.

  3. Wow, even your review got me totally bleaked out and depressed! (thank you for reading it FOR me). Weird though, dystopias and post-apocs never get me that depressed. I guess it’s because they don’t seem as “real.”

    1. Domestic breakdowns have to be one of the saddest topics to read about. For that same reason though, I am amazed when a writer can take such a bleak topic and make it readable.

      Dystopias are totally different. They seem more like fantasy to me than anything.

    1. Haha. Actually, when I read books like this one, I always feel better about what I have. Makes you look at things differently.

  4. I have to be honest and tell you that I had a totally opposite reaction to this book! I loved the writing but the overall feel of the novel was just too depressing for me. I kept hoping that something redeeming would happen, that there would be some hope to be found, but well… you know what happens, LOL! It just was too sad for my tastes.

    1. Heather, I totally see your point. There’s no way to gloss over is sad. I’ve never had a problem with sad and depressing though. I know a lot of readers do. Did you read Legend of a Suicide? It was also very bleak but I was taken with the writing.

  5. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this one. Its on my TBR list, but I’m just not sure I’m in the mood for such a depressing book. Maybe later this winter. Thanks for the review though – it brought the book to my attention again 🙂

  6. “The path from normalcy to insanity is literally a mere boat ride away.” is that your sentence, Ti? It’s perfect! I can just hear the deep voice-over saying it in the movie’s trailer 🙂

  7. I didn’t like this one as much as you did, I am afraid. The characters were just too negative and the situations that they put each other in were very bleak. I also really had some qualms about the ending, and it made me a little mad. I do agree that Vann has a beautiful writing style and that his scenes of Alaska were wonderful, but the story was just too much for me, I think.

    1. The characters were a product of their predicament. There were little glimmers of hope here and there, but the writing was certainly on the wall, wasn’t it?

      The ending was shocking to me. Not what happened but how it happened.

  8. This book intrigues me. I have had it on my tbr list for too long, although and forgot what it was about so thank you for reviewing it! I don’t mind that happy doesn’t have a place in this story. Sometimes that’s the way it is. Of course I’m curious about the end although something’s telling me what it might be so I’m going to try to stop thinking about this bokk! I relly enjoyed your review.

  9. I definitely passed on this because it seemed so miserable and bleak but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it — I guess I need to be less of a wimp and give it a try! You’ve been reading some great fiction recently — lots of new stuff that I don’t normally consider so thanks for all the new TBR recs! 😉

    1. I know! I was just thinking about all of the good books I’ve read this year. I feel so satisfied 🙂 Last year I was floundering a bit with my reading. I started off well and then my mojo petered out. I read, but there wasn’t much that wowed me.

  10. This does sound like a great book…and one I have never heard of before. Thanks for the great review Ti! A dark story to go with the dark cover this time.

  11. What a great review Ti—this book ha s been on my radar since last winter, and even though it sounds like a tough read, it has always sounded like a compelling read. Oh, and I know exactly what you are talking about regarding the tension between friends who are not getting along while out together–yuck!
    Thanks for the great review–I even think I may go see if I can get this for my Kindle tonight!

  12. I read The Legend as you said it’s not one to enjoy but one to ponder. Very powerful work. I assume this is the same. I’m convinced and hope I will get to read this as well, when I’m prepared not to be entertained but be inspired! 🙂

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