Caribou Island

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am


Caribou Island
by David Vann
Penguin HK$117

A 13-year-old boy is asked by his depressed, desperate father to spend a year homesteading with him in a remote cabin in Alaska. Soon after the boy declines, his father shoots himself in the head while on the phone to the boy's stepmother. She says she can hear parts of his head dripping from the ceiling. Less than a year before, her own mother had committed suicide, after taking her husband's life.

This is not a gruesome outline of David Vann's latest novel. They're events taken from his real life - a life scarred by five suicides in his extended family. So one can hardly blame him for delving into the darker side of humanity through his literary works - including the award-winning Legend of a Suicide and this latest one, Caribou Island.

Rather than a mere backdrop, the bleak Alaskan landscape is one of the protagonists of Caribou Island. The icy presence of the weather is constantly felt, and the harsh wilderness contrasts with the exquisite purity of the untouched glaciers, presenting its remoteness as both alluring and deathly.

Irene and Gary are a middle-aged couple struggling to build a cabin on a lonely island in the middle of an Alaskan lake, in the blind hope it will save their failing 30-year marriage. For Gary, the cabin represents his yearning for exile, the blind pursuit of a flawed dream. A champion of regret and self-punishment, he is lured by the ocean and tales of Vikings, experiencing an ancient longing to face the elements: 'A desire to see what the world can do, to see what you can endure, to see, finally, what you're made of as you're torn apart. A kind of bliss to annihilation, to being wiped away.'

Irene, however, is convinced the cabin is part of Gary's plan to leave her. She is overwhelmed by a fear of abandonment, trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of loneliness sparked by her mother's suicide when she was 10 years old, passed around, unwanted, from one distant family member to another.

We watch her sanity, and their marriage, unravel, as her pain takes on a physical form: a torturous, interminable migraine. She eventually drives him, her son, and even her understanding daughter Rhoda away as she drifts inward.

Rhoda's fianc? Jim is, like Vann's father, a dentist - and a cheater. He lies unflinchingly to Rhoda while she busies herself with honeymoon pamphlets. Even pre-marriage, there is already a sense of aimlessness and impending loneliness.

While both his books are painfully autobiographical in nature, there is not one character in Caribou Island that can be pinned down as Vann. He is, of course, partly Irene, haunted by a traumatic past, struggling with the weighty legacy of suicide, the fear that he is doomed to follow in his father's footsteps. But Vann also has a more optimistic side, reflected in parts by Rhoda, and a dry sense of humour, evident in lighter moments provided by Rhoda's brother Mark and other odd secondary characters.

Ten years ago, Vann lost everything when his boat - and with it his charter business - went down in a storm off the coast of Morocco. At that moment, he faced bankruptcy, and a fate uncannily like that of his father, who hit depression when he failed to fulfil his dream of becoming a commercial fisherman, being forced to return to his dentist practice. Having hit rock bottom, Vann suddenly realised he was not suicidal. He was not his father; and he was not doomed.

If his first book was a son's revenge, exploring what would have happened if he had spent that year of isolation with his father after all, this novel is perhaps his attempt to understand, even forgive his father. Both appear to have had a cathartic effect on Vann's life, as if by putting the pain on paper he is capable of exorcising the demons of his past and leading his own life.

Many will be put off by the bleak setting and plot; Vann himself has joked that suicide is hardly a best-selling theme. But the blend of realism and dreamlike poetry that Vann creates is far from dreary. His writing is lively, stunning, and holds you captive as the tension builds.

Vann has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Franzen (the latter's much raved-about Freedom being likened to a 'soap opera' in comparison to Caribou Island by The Times of London). But I would argue that, right now, Vann's only true contender is himself.