On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unravelling.
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 out to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to patch together the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place.
Across the water on the mainland, Irene and Gary’s grown daughter, Rhoda is starting her own life. She fantasizes about the perfect wedding day, whilst her betrothed, Jim the dentist, wonders about the possibility of an altogether different future.
This is a beautiful book, subtle and involving where no word is wasted, the setting serves to amplify and challenge the delicate threads of family and relationships. The cruelties and illusions of love are Vann’s work here, and he does so, with a profound warmth for the characters. Franz Kafka said something that stayed with me when I read the quote and it applies perfectly to Caribou Island.
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.
I’m not a masochist of any description, and yet the sadness that Vann evokes is deep and profound, even as he maintains a palpable focus and invention. The harsh environment serves as a character, in and of itself, agitating and reflecting the inner turmoil of the characters.
Vann speaks beautifully about men and women, family, relationships, sadness and sickness. He shows us how people are, and the gap between that and how they believe that they could be. He is unsparing, and even the last act which is heartbreaking has a logic and a resonance that has you stay with it, even in the worst moments. There is a cyclical nature to the book, an understanding of legacies and histories, and how past, present and future all blend into one melange. He touches on issues of class, desire and ambition.
I loved this book, it had a singular intensity and passion to it without sacrificing delicacy or craft in any way. It moved me deeply and I am still haunted by it’s final scenes, which is part of the beauty of fiction, in that I mourn for people who do not exist outside of the book, but for a spell, command my attention and my emotions.