On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unraveling. Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are trying to rebuild their life together. Following the outline of Gary’s old dream, they’re hauling logs to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to build the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place.
But this island is not right for Irene. They are building without plans or advice, and when winter comes early, the overwhelming isolation of the prehistoric wilderness threatens their bond to the core. Caught in the emotional maelstrom is their adult daughter, Rhoda, who is wrestling with the hopes and disappointments of her own life. Devoted to her parents, she watches helplessly as they drift further apart.
A portrait of desolation, violence, and the darkness of the soul, it is an explosive and unforgettable novel from a writer of limitless possibility.
I know I already mentioned Caribou Island my Vacation Roundup, but I just wanted to take a quick minute and reiterate how fantastic I think it is. I thought it deserved its own moment in the sun, so to speak. Plus, I wanted to mark it as a Top Pick. You’re welcome.
From my Vacation Roundup (and please pardon me for quoting myself):
This baby was the dark horse of the group. And when I say dark, I mean dark. Set in Alaska, it’s the story of Irene and Gary, and their attempt to save their marriage by building a cabin on Caribou Island. (Don’t ask, just read.) Also of note: their daughter, Rhoda, and her relationship with her shitface boyfriend, Jim. You want to shake Rhoda and tell her to WAKE UP JIM IS AN IDIOT but then you feel bad because Rhoda is the only one who knows that when it comes to her parents, well, things just ain’t right. This book is pretty powerful. It’s bleak and it’s complicated, and did I mention dark? Vann doesn’t mince words, either . . . it’s solidly packed, without any fat to trim around the edges. Read it. I will repeat: READ IT.
I found myself in that wonderful post-fantastic-read bubble of wowness, and while I was poking around for more information on Vann and Caribou Island, I came across many bad reviews of the book. I try very hard to avoid reviews of a book that I want to read before I actually read it, so I was pretty surprised. When I started reading the reviews, however, I saw that their dislikes tended to be my likes. Por ejemplo, some readers didn’t like the various narrators. I, on the other hand, think that tool is crucial to Gary and Irene’s story, and also to seeing the similarities between that relationship and the relationship between Jim and Rhoda. There’s a multi-generational thing going on here, you see. It’s tragic and intense. Maybe I just fell so hard for it because I’m just tragic and intense. HA.
Many more of the poor reviews were based on the “somber,” “depressing,” miserable,” “insert similar-yet-appropriate adjective here” tone of Vann’s plot and storytelling. To me, though, that’s what makes the damn book. Yes, it’s all of those things to a degree, but not gratuitously so; the novel is sincere and plainly wonderfully written. The mood is in the characters, it’s in the situations, it’s in the landscape itself. If you’re not a fan of that aspect of it, then I suppose you wouldn’t like the novel as a whole. But I clearly did.*
*See above re: tragic and intense.