Caribou Island by David Vann
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley
On a small island in Alaska, Gary and Irene’s marriage is deteriorating rapidly. After thirty years together, they are attempting to build a cabin on Caribou Island to reclaim the feelings they first had when they came to Alaska to live. But the project is not going well – they are blindly attempting to put the cabin together, the weather is atrocious, Irene is struck with awful migraines that leave her bedridden, and Gary becomes obsessed with getting this cabin built at any cost. Caught in the drama is their adult daughter Rhoda, who is dealing with the disappointments of her own life as well as the issues between her parents. Caribou Island is a darkly honest and beautifully written novel about one couple’s journey to redemption.
When I finished reading Caribou Island, I can honestly say that my feelings for the novel were all over the place. I had a very difficult time trying to figure out if I actually liked the book or if I strongly disliked it – it definitely could have gone either way. And now, several weeks later, I’m still trying unsuccessfully to wrap my brain around this novel. On the one hand, the writing is excellent – dark, atmospheric, the kind of writing that draws the reader into a book, regardless of the actual story. On the other hand, the characters were flawed to the point where I strongly disliked them, the story itself is extremely depressing, and it left me with such strange, confused feelings.
I still can’t say for sure that I liked or disliked Caribou Island, but what I can say is that I appreciated the novel. The writing really is stunning. Several times throughout the book I had to pause and ask myself if I wanted to continue reading such a depressing novel, and every time I decided to continue on with it because of how much I was enjoying Vann’s writing.
Every single character in this novel is impossible to like. Gary is obsessed with building this cabin, no matter the cost, and basically ignores his wife’s excruciating pain as she deals with her migraines. Irene has already given up on Gary and everything else in her life, and is simply putting on a show for him, building the cabin because he wants her to. Rhoda is okay, but her boyfriend is not a good guy and she doesn’t seem to see him for his true self. In a way I admire Vann for creating these despicable characters that the reader can’t help but want to understand, but also I have to admit to being annoyed with how much I disliked these people. It was difficult to find any redeeming qualities in them, to connect with them at all, which made the overall reading experience somewhat depressing.
I have a love/hate relationship with the ending of Caribou Island. It was very fitting to the rest of the story – it’s shocking, sad, and actually makes a lot of sense given the rest of the book. But it made me feel so very depressed and when I closed the book I had a difficult time shaking the feelings of sadness I was experiencing. It was just such a hopeless ending, such a terrible thing to happen to this family – it made it difficult for me to say I enjoyed the book as a whole.
So, all that being said, in the end the word “appreciate” best captures the way I feel about this novel. I appreciate what David Vann did here, even though I didn’t particularly like it. I would recommend Caribou Island for readers who delight in fantastic writing and darker, more somber fiction.