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52 Books #9: Caribou Island

March 9, 2011

David Vann’s Caribou Island (Penguin) arrives with two variant cover designs and a slew of critical acclaim for his previous book, the half-novel-half-memoir Legends of a Suicide. There’s the legend of a suicide on the very first page of his new novel, as Irene tells her adult daughter Karen about how, as a child, she returned home one day to find her own mother dead from hanging. Irene’s mother’s death casts a long shadow over this book, which is in part about the consequences of witnessing something so horrific, and the (im)possibility of recovering from that kind of trauma.

As the book begins, Irene is reluctantly assisting her husband with the construction of a log cabin (I pictured it as Simon Starling‘s Shedboatshed artwork) on the isolated, stormlashed Caribou Island of the title. She’s convinced that this is Gary’s passive-aggressive way of splitting up with her, by putting her in the position of leaving him and therefore ensuring he looks like the injured party. Irene, alert to this, will not give up on the project, even when she starts to suffer an incapacitating pain behind her eye that will not go away.

Meantime, their daughter Karen, worried to distraction by her parents’ project, is unaware that her dentist fiance Jim is being seduced, teased and eventually blackmailed by Monique, a statuesque and self-assured visitor to Alaska who sees in him a way to amuse herself and to make a bit of cash. You read Jim’s plotline — he salivates over Monique, follows her around, lovelorn, pays for her to take a helicopter ride onto the glacier and ultimately pays for her to go away — shaking your head, but while Monique may be a little sketchily characterised, Jim’s reactions are, horribly, never forced-feeling or unlikely. This is all too plausible, as is the response of Monique’s so-called boyfriend Carl, who discovers what she’s up to but for a while can’t bring himself to leave her side.

We get inside the heads of Jim, Karen, Irene and Gary at various points throughout the book, and what we see is the utter hopeless inability of each person to understand one another. Instead they construct elaborate and usually entirely erroneous pictures of their spouse or relative. They’re not doing this necessarily to serve their own interests — the book shows that the possibility of understanding even the person closest to you is in inverse proportion to your wish to do so: the more you feel you understand the other person, the more you are deluding yourself. In Irene’s case this deception manifests as the pain in her eye, which, a succession of doctors assure her, has no physiological cause whatsoever.

One too many times — and to reiterate, this is a book about a virtually estranged couple working together to construct a dangerous  new dwelling place in a remote and hostile environment — a character will think of what he or she is doing as “a metaphor for life”. This is a shame, since especially the to-and-fro of Irene and Gary’s relationship (sometimes they’re almost close, other times their animosity almost overwhelms them; at times these feelings overlap and interact) is so expertly depicted: the little shifts, progressions and setbacks, the tug of war of emotions. Overtly drawing attention to metaphor in this way seems oddly amateurish and needy; for otherwise Caribou Island is incredibly confident and compelling. Sometimes the to-and-fro of Gary and Irene’s relationship makes it seem as if the book is verging on a Beckettian situation, a kind of stasis, the relationship forever picking itself up and then foundering. Against this, though, there’s the harrowing account of how the couple build the cabin together — some of this reminded me of the descriptions of woodlands work in Per Petterson’s wonderful Out Stealing Horses, with the same sense of labour as a way to overcome tragedy, or at least to defer thinking about tragedy — and as the construction draws to an end, the reader starts to fear what exactly Irene and Gary have built for themselves.

The ending, not to say too much, is apocalyptically awful, and turns the whole book on its head. We end with Karen’s hopes and dreams in the balance, little does she know it, all her goodwill gone to nothing, on the verge of realising that she has never known the faintest thing about her parents or her husband-to-be. It’s a cruel ending, in a way a very authorly ending, Vann making his position on human nature and folly abundantly clear. That realisation only comes in hindsight: at the time, reading the last few pages, I made a noise of distress aloud. For its ending and the shifting perspective it casts on what’s gone before, Caribou Island is the most striking book I’ve read in a very long time.

Other reading in Week #9: Granta 114: ‘Aliens’ (Granta)

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