Caribou Island by David Vann

Caribou Island by David Vann (2011) French title : Désolations. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself, walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to the narrow porch. I can’t remember how my thoughts went then, can’t remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone, erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I’m sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door. I was outside on the porch again.

You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?


Oh, Mom.

It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn’t see even at the time, so I can’t see it now. I don’t know what she looked like, hanging there. I don’t remember any of it, only that it was.

This is the first page of Caribou Island by David Vann. We jump in tragedy right from the start, without any time to test the literary waters of the novel. Irene is Rhoda’s mother. She’s been married to Gary for thirty years. They met in California where Gary was working on a thesis about Anglo-Saxon early literature. They went to Alaska for a summer and never left. They built their life there, Irene as a kindergarten teacher and Gary working the odd jobs here and there while leaping from one failing project to the other. Living in Alaska was Gary’s dream, his vision of living in nature, like the sentimental version of the Vikings in the Anglo-Saxon literature he used to study. Their house in on a lake, rather far from the closest town. It takes forty minutes to Rhoda, who works in town as a veterinarian’s assistant, to come and visit her parents.

Irene and Gary are retired now and Gary’s new project is to build a cabin on Caribou Island, an island on the lake near their house. He intends to move out of their cozy home to live in this cabin. Irene doesn’t approve of this project but she thinks that if she opposes to it, Gary will leave her. And that’s unacceptable to her. Her mother committed suicide after her husband left her and Irene never saw her father again. She won’t stand to be abandoned again. She’s ready to endure anything to keep Gary.

This project becomes a battle of will between the two. Irene’s body rejects her submission to it by inflicting her blinding headaches. Gary won’t exempt her from working on the cabin and she keeps nailing wood, pulling and carrying logs and sawing woods. All this in atrocious weather because of Gary’s lack of planning. He started to build a cabin for the winter in Alaska, in mid-August, without any blueprints or schedule. You just need to read Maria Chapdelaine to know that starting such a project in Alaska so late in the summer is plain stupid.

We follow Irene and Gary’s crazy project but we also hear about their children, Rhoda and Mark. Rhoda lives with Jim, a dentist who is ten years older than her and who loves pancakes with peaches for dinner. She craves for security and is ready to settle for Jim as long as he seems reliable. Mark looks like a loser. He lives in his unfinished house by the lake, not far from his parents. His girlfriend Karen and him love pot, they live on the edge of society and Mark makes a living on fishing ships. In the end, I wondered which one of them was the most adjusted. Rhoda is ready to accept a lot for material security and her dreams of a normal life. Mark just does as he pleases but seems reliable at work and supports himself and Karen. Mark and Karen don’t need much and have chosen their lives. Between Rhoda and Mark, who’s the happiest of the two?

The main characters and the main plot thread of the novel remains Irene and Gary battling with the elements and their logs to build a lopsided cabin that Gary dreams of and that Irene dreads. Landscapes and the weather are key characters in Vann’s novel. It reminded me of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. Caribou Island is sad but less bleak and depressing than Housekeeping. The books have the dreadful weather in common. Wind, rain, cold. More wind, more rain and more cold.

David Vann gave a one hour long interview at Quais du Polar this year. I attended his talk with a French journalist. He mentioned landscapes as an important literary tradition in American literature. He also said that he shared details of his life because they have a direct link with his writing. David Vann was born on an island in Alaska in 1966. He said it was a dark island, with one hundred miles per hour winds, six meters of rain per year. He explained that it was overcast and rainy all the time, that they saw the sun two weeks per year. It was isolated and his main activities where fishing and hunting. His personal knowledge of the Alaska landscape and weather is obvious in Caribou Island. It feels real, coming from experience, from the guts.

He also said that he grew up among eleven women of different generations who all had horrible dating experiences. Their vision of men was not stellar and he explained that it feels natural to him to write from a female point of view. I thought that the men in Caribou Island were pathetic and childish. Gary is cruel to Irene and dreams irrealistic dreams. He’s selfish and totally unprepared for his new venture and he dares to complain about Irene’s lack of enthusiasm. Mark distances himself from his family, he doesn’t want to get involved and would rather flee than fight for anything. Jim is like a kid in a grownup body, taking advantage of Rhoda’s kindness and practicing evasive behavior at Olympic level. Who would like to be saddled with any of them?

David Vann also explained that his books are based upon Greek tragedy canvasses. They are set in one place, in a limited period of time and with one major plot thread. This is why he works with a close-knit set of characters. Family is the most important thing in life and the closest people are the ones we love the most and the ones that can hurt us the most. We only need one person to break us and this is why side characters are nice but not necessary. To move the plot forward, a taboo needs to be broken or something life changing is about to happen and they’ll have to deal with the consequences. Here, Irene and Gary are supposed to move out to the cabin on Caribou Island. These elements are enough to cook an explosive drama, which is exactly the case in Caribou Island.

I think that the French cover of the book is excellent: Irene and Gary are like a pair of cissors. They face each other, they are attached forever and spend their time going away from each other and coming close again. This is a typically American novel with its character attracted to life as a pioneer, life in the woods, facing nature on their own. I’ve never encounted anything like this is a European novel.

Caribou Island is a powerful novel, one that will move you and irritate you. Everything is well designed, the setting, the plot, the style. And yet it feels natural. David Vann is an inspired writer, not one who prepared his first novel in creative writing class. There’s a force in his prose and in his characters that comes from deep inside him and the reader can feel it.

Impressive and highly recommended. I read this along with Guy and I’ve been a bad reading partner. I was supposed to publish this billet on May 31st but real life went in the way. Sorry again, Guy.

  1. June 5, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    Can’t wait to read Aquarium by him. Still haven’t got around to it, but this one does sound very American pioneer…


    • June 5, 2017 at 10:18 pm

      And yet, now that I think of it, there’s something very Djian in it. Noir like “Oh…” (Elle) or Incidences (Consequences)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. June 5, 2017 at 11:05 pm

    Thanks for the nudge to read this. I bought his book DIRT after reading this. Did you like the subplot with Rhoda and Jim?


    • June 6, 2017 at 9:45 pm

      I liked the subplot with Rhoda and Jim, I welcomed the distraction from the claustropobic confrontation between Irene and Gary. Poor Rhoda, I wonder what will become of her after that ending.

      What did you think of Mark?

      It doesn’t make you want to live in Alaska, eh? Terrible place. The fish gutting and the work conditions at the canning factory are consistent with what Ian Levison describes in A Working Stiff’s Manifesto. Awful place to work.


      • June 7, 2017 at 1:29 am

        I think Rhoda is going to be very unhappy. I found Jim’s reaction to what happened to him interesting.
        When I was younger, I heard the call of Alaska. I can see why people find it a fascinating/challenging place to live. It’s so vast but I might find it too much. I believe the cost of living there is high. Could be wrong about that.


        • June 8, 2017 at 9:37 pm

          I agree with you. She’ll be unhappy and she’ll feel guilty. I hopes she moves out to some happier place in the US.

          I’m a real city addict. I can’t imagine living in Alaska and with such weather as Vann described. I’d be depressed all the time.


          • June 8, 2017 at 10:58 pm

            I can see the adventure of it, but not an easy place to age in.


  3. June 6, 2017 at 9:00 am

    Great review, Emma. I remember seeing and hearing a lot about this book when it first came out. There was quite a buzz at the time. I’ve seen it described as a companion piece to his earlier book. Legend of a Suicide. Have you read that one?


    • June 6, 2017 at 9:46 pm

      I haven’t read Legend of a Suicide. It’s the first Vann I’ve read. I was reluctant because I heard he wrote bleak books but it’s not so bad and the writing is superb.


  4. June 6, 2017 at 11:49 pm

    That scissor image on the cover is indeed very creative. Ive not heard of this author but he sounds like someone I could get to enjoy


    • June 8, 2017 at 9:39 pm

      It’s a great cover and it really pictures well the hate/love relationship between Irene and Gary.

      I expected to find it difficult to read because too bleak. I found it easy, catching and dark. A very good book. Unless I read a huge pile of masterpieces in the next 7 months, it should be on my year end list.


  5. June 7, 2017 at 1:30 am

    As for Mark: he’s a bit of a cipher. I waited for him to tell Rhoda about Jim but he didn’t. he was very divorced emotionally from his family.


    • June 8, 2017 at 9:33 pm

      A cipher? Hard to read?
      I thought he was detached from his parents but in the end, he helped Rhoda. He’s not so bad.


      • June 8, 2017 at 11:00 pm

        Yes, hard to read. He seemed to have made a decision, conscious or subconscious, to step away from his parents (even though they lived close by)


  6. June 7, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    This might be one to take a chance on.


    • June 8, 2017 at 9:40 pm

      It’s worth it really. I’ll be interested in reading your thoughts about it.


  7. June 8, 2017 at 3:02 pm

    The French cover is very good. The writing seems strong but I’m not sure this is for me. You’re right I think that this is a very American kind of novel (which is in no way a criticism of course, but it’s not part of the European experience in the same way).

    Vann does sound excellent on landscape and in terms of focus, but family sagas set against the elements don’t appeal. Even here where the writing plainly is very good.


    • June 8, 2017 at 9:45 pm

      This is publisher by Gallmeister. AGAIN. They have a knack for amazing American literature and their books are elegant.

      It is very American. I never understood the appeal of living in the woods and all that stuff.

      For example, I don’t think that Into the Wild is a great story. I thought he was so selfish to just live everything behind and cut off his family like this.

      This cabin dream is a frequent theme, no? It’s in Roth’s I Married a Communist, in Harrison’s True North.

      I wonder if there’s the same in Canadian literature…

      I’m surprised that you’re not interested in Caribou Island. I would have recommended it to you.


      • June 13, 2017 at 4:41 pm

        Hm, if you’d have recommended it to me I’ll take another look. It could just be my mood of the moment. It sounds like a winter book.


        • June 14, 2017 at 6:34 am

          I can see why you’d want to read it in winter.


  1. June 5, 2017 at 11:06 pm

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