Caribou Island (Paperback)
Harper Perennial, 9780061875731, 293pp.
Publication Date: January 3, 2012
"Exceptional....An unflinching portrait of bad faith and bad dreams." --Ron Rash, author of Burning Bright
Set against the backdrop of Alaska's unforgiving wilderness, Caribou Island is David Vann's dark and captivating tale of a marriage pulled apart by rage and regret. With this eagerly anticipated debut novel, a masterful follow-up to his internationally bestselling short fiction anthology, Legend of a Suicide, Vann takes up the mantle of Louise Erdrich, Marilyn Robinson, and Rick Moody, delivering a powerfully wrought, enthrallingly emotional narrative of struggle and isolation.
Praise For Caribou Island…
“Caribou Island gets to places other novels can’t touch. . . . Though it wears the clothes of realism—the beautiful exactness of the language, the unerring eye for detail—it takes us someplace darker, older, more powerful than the daylit world.”
-Kevin Canty, New York Times Book Review
“Vann’s beautiful, spare portrait of a marriage’s end casts a singular spell.”
“Caribou Island builds to an horrific climax and stands as an engrossing and disturbing work of art.”
-Alan Cheuse, NPR
“Legend earned him the acclaim of being one of the best writers of his generation. His first novel is a worthy successor. . . . Caribou Island gives us a climax as haunting and realized as any in recent fiction.”
-Wayne Harrison, San Francisco Chronicle
“Moving, powerful . . . Vann’s people are hurtling irretrievably toward a dark outcome, and while putting the book down might save you from it, you can’t stop reading, just as you can’t unlearn its truths.”
-Caitlin Roper, Los Angeles Times
“Vann forces us to watch, to pay attention. He refuses to provide his characters—or us—with an easy, happy resolution. Instead, he gives us something much more valuable: an unflinching portrait of what can happen to lives when hopes and ambitions wander off, get lost, and surrender to the merciless cold.”
-Kevin Grauke, Philadelphia Inquirer
“Both [Caribou Island and Legend of a Suicide] are intense tragedies set against an unforgiving landscape. Both are delivered in clear, lyric prose. . . . Vann isn’t delivering happy endings, but he is delivering life in crystalline, unforgettable prose.”
-Robin Vidimos, Denver Post
“Vann is a poet of the animal swings between men and women struggling for the upper hand.”
-Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Compelling. As the plot moves toward a gruesome finale, the reader is submerged in ‘slow waves of pressure, water compacting but no edge to it.’”
“[Vann] has come fully into his own voice, from the striking opening scene to the fateful final sentence.... An oddly exhilarating horror story in which human demons spring from the smoke of their own disappointment and regret. Caribou Island earns Vann a seat beside the masters. A+”
-Sheerly Avni, San Francisco Magazine
“Transfixing and unflinching. . . . Full of finely realized moments. . . . Comparison with Cormac McCarthy is fully justified.”
-Toby Lichtig, Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Greatness has arrived: Caribou Island is a powerful first novel of love, lust, and regret set on an island near Soldotna, a fishing town on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.... Vann slowly and quietly builds the drama toward an emotional gut-punch of an ending—think Cormac McCarthy on ice.”
“[Vann uses] American landscape as a metaphor to tremendous effect. . . . Vann’s brilliance as a writer lies in his willingness to expose everything. . . . A writer to read and reread; a man to watch carefully.”
“An existential page-turner and literary breakthrough. . . . The novel’s primal power, moral depth, and narrative command show the author making a big leap.”
-Don McLeese, Kirkus Reviews
“A taut and riveting study of isolation, insanity, and violence.”
-Bret Anthony Johnston, Men's Journal
“The reader’s awareness of real deaths, real griefs, gives his work something of the lethal intensity of handling an unsheathed knife: at times the power is exhilarating, and at other times it cuts bloodily and to the quick.”
-Olivia Laing, New Statesman
“Bleak, beautifully written and bitterly funny. . . . What really distinguishes Vann’s work is his feel for his wintry setting. . . . But he is, oddly, just as memorable when describing a soul-crushing afternoon at the local fish cannery.”
-Jake Kerridge, Financial Times
“Compared to Caribou Island, The Road is grim-lit lite. . . . Welcome to Vann’s demon land.”
-Ian Sansom, London Review of Books
“Reaffirms Vann as a talented conjurer of the natural world, and of our nakedness in the face of its power and cruel impassivity.”
-Ian Crouch, New Republic
“Caribou Island is a beautiful, richly atmospheric if unsettling novel, and deserves to consolidate Vann’s position among America’s literary high flyers.”
-Melanie McGrath, London Evening Standard
“Beautifully gloomy….Compelling….[Caribou Island] triumphs in its juxtaposition of claustrophobia-inducing relationships against the forbidding vastness of our 49th state….Vann uses chiseled phrases and verb-less declarations to evoke the natural ruggedness of the setting as well as the character’s emotional distress.”
-Tyrone Beason, Seattle Times
“As bleak as an Alaskan winter, but it also wields an unforgiving, elemental power that is breathtaking to read.”
-Doug Johnstone, Independent (UK)
“Vann summons an atmosphere of terrestrial and emotional permafrost so intense that it’ll freeze your bones.”
-Lee Randall, Scotsman
“Arguably the first literary masterpiece to take place on the Kenai Peninsula. . . . Like a macabre machine, the narrative ratchets ever tighter until the closing image of one final, forlorn hope that will be smashed as soon as the story-telling stops and the reader closes the book.”
-Mike Dunham, Anchorage Daily News
“Vann keeps the pages turning with the skill of the best mystery novelists.”
-Patrick Condon, Associated Press
“It’s rare when a fiction writer of extraordinary literary merit is equally brilliant in both the short story and novel forms. David Vann is a dazzling exception….Vann knows the darkness but he writes from the compassionate light of art. This is an essential book.”
-Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
“In this exceptional first novel by the celebrated author of Legend of a Suicide, an oncoming Alaska winter becomes metaphor as a troubled marriage moves implacably toward a bleak reckoning. Caribou Island is an unflinching portrait of bad faith and bad dreams.”
-Ron Rash, author of Burning Bright
“Vann’s brilliance lies in his willingness to expose all. . . . Desolate, violent, heartbreaking. . . . A striking novel filled with the violence borne of a bitter life.”
-Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“Expect to have to stop and think now and then as answers may be hard to find, but the questions are everywhere. Read it and be prepared to expand your mind.”
-The Daily Post (New Zealand)
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- Caribou Island opens with Irene's recollection of her mother's suicide. How does this set the tone for what follows? How did this tragedy ultimately define Irene's life and her relationship with her husband, Gary? Could events have unfolded for her differently?
- Also at the novel's beginning, Irene tells her daughter, Rhoda, "your father wants to leave me, and the first step is to make us move out to that island. To make it seem he gave it a try." Is Irene correct? What was the significance of the cabin and Caribou Island for Gary?
- Examine the characters and their personalities. Focusing on one or two, use examples from the book to create a profile. Did you like any of the characters? What were the motivations for their actions: What drove Gary to build the cabin on Caribou Island? Why did Irene go along with him? Why is Rhoda dating Jim? Why is Carl in Alaska? Why does Jim risk everything to be with Monique? What did each of them want—would they be happy or content if they got it?
- Alaska has long been considered our last wilderness. What are your impressions of Alaska? What role does the setting play in the novel? How is our idea of masculinity tied into notions of Alaska and the frontier? What does "being a man" mean to Gary, Jim, and Carl? How would Irene, Rhoda, and Monique define what a man is?
- How would you categorize Irene and Gary's marriage? What kept them together? Why didn't one or the other leave? Irene also tells her daughter, "We all have rules, Rhoda. And your father's main rule is that he can never seem like the bad guy." Do you agree? What "rules" did Irene live by? What about Rhoda and Jim? What about yourself or others you know—do you have rules?
- Compare and contrast Irene and Rhoda and analyze their bond. When Rhoda breaks the news about her engagement to Jim, how does Irene react? Should she have kept her opinion to herself or does she do the right thing? Does her advice stem from bitterness or love?
- "Gary knew he should feel lucky, but felt nothing except a mild, background terror of how he'd get through the day, how he'd fill the hours. He'd felt this all his adult life, especially in the evenings, especially when he was single. After the sun went down, the stretch of time until when he could sleep seemed an impossible expanse, something looming, a void that couldn't be crossed." Why might a man who feels—and fears—such emptiness, be drawn to a place like Alaska? What did Gary think he would find there? What did he ultimately find? Use examples from the story.
- Shortly after they begin building the cabin, Irene is plagued by debilitating headaches. Were the headaches real, or a manifestation of emotional distress? How does the family react to her distress?
- One of the themes of Caribou Island is change. Neither Gary nor Irene recognize the person they are today compared to who they once were—as Irene says, "each new version refuting all previous." Do the events that impact us over the course of our lives change us that much? Is it possible to retain the core essence of self despite life's vicissitudes? Do these characters have that core or is its absence the root of their problems?
- Late in the book, Irene muses about the years past. "It hadn't been a bad life, on the surface. Something elemental about it. Something that could have been true if it hadn't been all just a distraction for Gary, a kind of lie. If he had been true, their lives could have been true." Why does she think this? What isn't "true" about Gary and why weren't their lives "true" in Irene's eyes?
- As for her husband, Gary calls Irene "a mean old bitch" and accuses her of destroying his dreams. Are they both right? Are they both wrong? How much are each of them responsible for the state of their marriage and their lives?
- Could Irene's denouement have been prevented? How did you feel at the end? What do you think happens to Rhoda?
- What did you take away from reading Caribou Island?