Caribou Island – Book Review

They were going to build their cabin from scratch. No foundation, even. And no plans, no experience, no permits, no advice welcome. Gary wanted to just do it, as it the two of them were the first to come upon this wilderness. – from Caribou Island, page 4 –

Gary and Irene have been married a long time, living most of their lives in the desolate wilderness of Alaska. Their two children are now grown up – Rhoda looking forward to marrying her dentist boyfriend Jim, and Mark living with his girlfriend while he makes a living fishing in the unpredictable waters of the bay. No one is happy in this novel of failing relationships, disloyalty, escapism from reality, and regrets. Caribou Island tells the story of a marriage sliding into violence and uses the backdrop of the Alaskan wilderness as a symbol of the isolation of the characters.

David Vann’s writing has been compared with that of Cormac McCarthy – and for good reason. The starkness of the prose, the realistic and razor sharp dialogue (absent quotation marks), and the hard-hitting plot that moves relentlessly forward toward disaster reads very much like a McCarthy novel. But, Vann has his own style, a way of getting inside his characters’ heads which is uniquely his own. Gary is a brilliant character – a man who could have been a success in anything he chose, but instead he escapes to the wilds of Alaska where he fails at everything.

He had lived almost his entire adult life in exile, in Alaska, a self-exile as good as any sea, and he wanted now to experience the very worst this storm could throw at him. – from Caribou Island, page 190 –

Irene has followed Gary into his self-imposed exile out of  her unquestioning love for him. But, as the seams of their marriage begin to unravel, desperation begins to drive her toward a brutal understanding of how much she has lost.

Caribou Island moves forward like a train gathering momentum and heading toward certain disaster. There can be no good end, and yet the reader cannot stop reading. And this is what is most compelling about Vann’s writing: tragedy is just around the corner, but we cannot look away. As the conflict between Irene and Gary grows, so too does the inevitability of the plot.

This is a dark and psychologically terrifying novel about the dissolution of a marriage. It haunted me. David Vann writes with honesty and sharp-edged realism that is hard to ignore. Not every reader will want to travel through this story with Vann, but for those who do, it will be a ride they will not soon forget.

Readers who enjoy noir and literary fiction, who have respected the writing of authors like Cormac McCarthy, and who like psychological thrillers will undoubtedly be impressed with Caribou Island.

Highly recommended.

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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  1. I was hoping you would tell me this book is less bleak than many of the reviews have made it seem… But I never really enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s work either, so I guess maybe this is one I should skip. I’m truly torn! I do enjoy novels that take place in Alaska. Sigh. Thanks for a great review regardless!

    • Wendy on February 2, 2011 at 11:58

    You’re welcome, Lydia. It is definitely bleak – some great descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness (also rather bleak!!). But, if you are not a fan of McCarthy, this probably is not going to resonate with you.

  2. This sounds very powerful, but I think I’d have to be in the right mood to read it.

    • Staci on February 2, 2011 at 13:13

    I like the sound of this one. I’ve never red McCarthy but it does seem like a book that would keep you on the edge of your seat!

    • Aths on February 2, 2011 at 15:35

    I’ve been hesitating to add this one for a while, but now I’m really curious about it. It does sound good!

    • zibilee on February 3, 2011 at 05:53

    I have this book up for review soon, and I am really looking forward to it. I love dark and haunting books sometimes, and I think this one sounds like it’s going to be an excellent read for me. I am glad to hear that you thought it was so well done!

    • Wendy on February 3, 2011 at 08:30

    Kathy: I agree – you need to be in the right mindframe.

    Staci: It definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat!

    Aths: I don’t think this book is for everyone – but, I think you might like this one Aths.

    Heather: If you like dark and haunting, this one is definitely for you…hope you like it!

    • Pam on February 3, 2011 at 09:00

    How fitting that this is so similar to the name of your lovely blog. :O) I’ve heard very good things about the book and I’ve just recenlty found myself loving darker stuff. Must check it out, I guess!

    • Wendy on February 3, 2011 at 09:16

    Pam: LOL – I thought the same thing! If you like the darker stuff, this one is right up your alley – hope you’ll like it!

    • Teddy on February 3, 2011 at 21:37

    I just posted my review of Caribou Island a few minutes ago and now see that you also reviewed it. I will add your link to my review. I didn’t like it as much as you did but do think it has literary merit. I just found Monique so annoying and thought she took away from the real story.

  3. This sounds like a powerful and, as you say, haunting, book.

    I plan to read it, but I’ll wait for summer (sunnier weather) before I tackle this dark volume — this bleak winter has got to end some time …

    • Wendy on February 6, 2011 at 18:02

    Teddy: Thanks for the link to my review 🙂 Sorry you didn’t like this one so much.

    Dawn: I can see where reading this in the summer might make it easier to take!

  4. I love a good psychological thriller so I think I’d like this one. I’m sad to say I still haven’t read any McCarthy so I don’t know if I will like the writing style or not.

    • Anna on February 7, 2011 at 05:07

    I like dark books, and I know how this one kept you reading well into the night, so I’m adding it to my to-read list.

    • Wendy on February 9, 2011 at 09:49

    Kathleen: well, if you get a chance to read this one, and like it, I recommend picking up a copy of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy – it is a brilliant, dark book.

    Anna: Hope you’ll like it!

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