Caribou Island

David Vann

First Sentence: My mother was not real.

Reading that first sentence you’d be forgiven for thinking that this book was written in the first person, but this is not the case. Like Cormac McCarthy (who he is ceaselessly being compared to, primarily, I’m convinced, because of this), David Vann does not use quotation marks, so in this instance we have Irene speaking. Irene is married to Gary, and they are trying to rebuild their marriage while, at the same time, trying to build a log cabin on the remote Caribou Island in Alaska. At the beginning, Irene is speaking with Gary and Rhoda, her grown daughter, about the time she discovered her mother’s body hanging from the rafters in her home. She was only a child at the time and it is clear that this scene has marred her life ever since. As Gary and Irene struggle with their cabin (and Irene’s increasingly bad headaches), Rhoda has her own set of problems to contend with, starting with cheating husband-to-be Jim. Add to this mix, Mark, her stoner brother and his reprobate friends, and you have an extremely volatile mixture of relationships, ready to implode at any minute. This book is finely crafted with Alaska as a place playing a vital role. It’s all Salmon and cold and mosquitoes and moose antlers and hip waders and bears, right form the start, with this sense of place only adding to the desolation felt by (most of) the characters. As the weather, and the relationships deteriorate, you just know things are going to get a lot worse. I really enjoyed this book and would have no problem recommending it. The ending being a particular highlight…

* * * *

Last Sentence: A place carefree, a day she had dreamed of all her life, the beginning, finally.

Last Sentence explained: Well, this book ends in spectacular fashion. As Irene’s mental health collapses, she kills Gary in their just-about-finished-but-still-pretty-ramshackle-log-cabin and then proceeds to kill herself. The only way she can do this is by pinning Gary to the floor with arrows, so that when she makes her noose, she has something strong enough to tie it to which will hold her weight. All of this is grim enough before Irene’s final realisation that it will be Rhoda who is going to discover this scene, a scene even worse than the one she herself witnessed as a child. We get the feeling that this may be the beginning of yet another cycle, particularly given what we know about Rhoda and Jim’s relationship. The book ends however before Rhoda does walk in on this carnage so there is still a small kernel of hope. She is with Mark on her way over to the island, dreaming of her wedding day in Hawaii, a place and time which could not be further removed from where she is headed.

Random quote about how things look after it snows:

“The world outlined and remade entirely, the light itself changed. Yesterday might as well have been six months ago.”

Random quote about what Gary hoped to achieve with his cabin:

“Gary stepped back and looked at his cabin. The outward shape of a man’s mind, he had thought before. A reflection. But he could see now that was not true. You could find an outward shape only if you entered the right field, the right profession, if you followed your calling. If you took the wrong path, all you could shape was monstrosity. This was without doubt the ugliest cabin he had ever seen, a thing misunderstood and badly constructed from beginning to end. The outward shape of how he had lived his life, but not the outward shape of who he could have been. That truer form had been lost, had never happened, but he didn’t feel sad any longer, or angry, really. He understood now that it just was.”


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