Friday, May 13, 2011

Caribou Island by David Vann — 304 pgs

Caribou Island: A NovelIrene and Gary are in a failing relationship. Though things seems civil on the surface, Irene is convinced that this is the last winter that the couple will spend together, sure that Gary will leave her. When Gary decides to build a cabin on Caribou Island, he enlists Irene’s help, but all the couple seem to do is snipe at each other more and more aggressively. Meanwhile, Gary and Irene’s adult daughter Rhoda is hoping to receive a marriage proposal from Jim, her long term boyfriend. But Jim isn’t all that thrilled about settling down with Rhoda and thinks perhaps he can do better. Irene and Gary also have a grown son named Mark, who is basically a shiftless pothead who wants very little to do with the rest of his family and whose prospects have gradually dwindled. When a new couple of Mark’s acquaintance starts hanging around, the woman of the couple, Monique, a manipulative twenty-something, begins to dangerously tempt Rhoda’s boyfriend Jim, a situation that Rhoda is oblivious to. After a particularly grueling day spent building the cabin, Irene seems to have developed a chronic and severe headache that she just can’t shake. After several medical tests reveal nothing, her family is left doubting whether there is anything wrong with her at all or if this is just an attempt to get attention from her fumbling husband. As the misshapen cabin grows, things begin to take a sinister turn in the couple’s marriage, leading to an act of bizarre and frightening violence from which the family will never recover. Bleak and caustic, Caribou Island presents a slice of the life of one family whose dysfunction and apathy will reverberate through all the lives they touch.

While this book had a lot of wonderful and evocative imagery and real ambiance of life in Alaska, I found it to be a very tough pill to swallow. The story was not only dark, but it had all the hallmarks of an irredeemable tragedy that I found very upsetting. The relationship between Irene and Gary was just painful to read about, and though the book mainly dealt with this from Irene’s perspective, It seemed like she was right on the money in predicting just what Gary was thinking in regards to his plans to leave her. I didn’t really like Irene or Gary at all. They were both self-involved, and at least in Irene’s case, there was enough self-pity shooting through her thoughts and actions to slay a horse. Both halves of this couple seemed miserable with each other, and one of the questions I asked myself is how they had managed to stay together for thirty-odd years without realizing that they were just not good for each other. This book started off in the throes of a desperate time for Irene and Gary, and as such, there was no opportunity for me to see what kept this couple together or to witness any of the good times that they ostensibly had. It was like walking into a room at the tail end of a fight, and it felt awkward and uncomfortable, to say the least.

I also had a hard time with the relationship between Rhoda and Jim. While Rhoda is basically driving herself crazy over her mother and father’s doomed relationship and the strange turn in her mother’s health, Jim is off acting like a sleazeball. I wanted Rhoda to be able to see him for what he was, but this never happened. Though she did begin to suspect that Jim was changing right before her eyes, she never really caught on to what he was going through or the resolutions he had made, and those resolutions were a doozy, let me tell you! I began to see that Rhoda’s relationship would eventually mirror her mother’s, and towards the end of the book, Irene even states this obvious fact to her daughter, but nothing could make Rhoda see the deception that Jim was engaged in. Rhoda also had some aspects of co-dependency to her personality, and whether or not she enabled her mother to act in such a bizarre fashion was something that remains cloudy in my mind. Though I really disliked the subplot between Rhoda and Jim, I was eager to see it to the end because I wanted some type of resolution that would make sense to me, but this resolution was only dealt with obliquely.

Much can be said about the repercussions of living in a relationship that is obviously past its prime, a situation that was minutely detailed in this book, but what stuck me the hardest was the way these individuals dealt with each other like enemies. They stored up grudges and dragged them out when they were at their most painful point, and it was really very ugly to witness. I didn’t feel sorry for either of them because they were both obviously so insensitive and cruel to each other. There were points that I felt embarrassed for them and wished that they would just go their separate ways in order to salvage some of the self-respect they had lost, but like boxers, they just kept getting up and pummeling each other over and over again until the final haunting conclusion. It was a sad state of affairs and I can’t say I was entertained by it. I felt a lot of discomfort reading about the perpetual battles and recriminations they put each other through, and by the end of the novel, I was fed up with all the hatred they both took part in. The solution to this problem was inelegant and shocking, and the final thoughts of Irene impacted me as severely selfish and short-sighted.

Though I really didn’t enjoy the story this book told, and often it made me frustrated and angry, I did like the scene setting and atmosphere. It was filled with lush and vivid descriptions and gave me a peek into what it might be like to live in the wilds of Alaska. I can’t say it was a pleasant reading experience though, as most of the time I was very put off by the characters’ behavior and thought patterns, but as a novel that deals with a dysfunctional family, I would have to say that it excels in its ambitions. Not a read for the faint of heart or the easily offended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

17 comments:

Suko said...

Too much darkness and dysfunction for me, I think. Excellent, incisive review, Zibilee!

Jenna (Literature and a Lens) said...

Just found your blog...love it and am now a follower! Thanks for posting such an honest, in-depth review. I've gone back and forth on whether to pick this one up, but I think I'll skip it. I love books with descriptive setting imagery, but the frustrating plot/characters doesn't appeal to me...especially the portrayal of the women as oblivious and full of self-pity.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

UGH This book drove me absolutely insane with its negativity and depressive nature. There were NO characters I could latch onto or even sort of enjoy, they were all miserable people and I couldn't help wondering how they managed to live so many years in these volatile, sick relationships. Yes I would agree with you completely on your assessment of the novel, LOL. Although, like you, I did appreciate the imagery and the writing was really quite beautiful. But overall, much too depressing and stark of a novel for my tastes.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I am just getting to hate dysfunctional family novels. Everyone in them tends to be so awful! Great review!

Anita said...

I love an honest book review, honestly there is so much good to read I often don't finish the books that don't grab me.

TheBookGirl said...

I'm struck by the fact that despite the unlikeable characters and depressing subject-matter, the book clearly evoked very strong feelings in you. That in itself says alot I think.
You really have a way with language Heather -- the way you describe the relationship between Gary and Irene is extraordinary!

Darlene said...

I picked up this book a while ago based on some reviews and just the fact that it kept drawing me back. I haven't had a chance to read it yet but hope to soon. By your descriptions it almost reminds me of Shadow Tag by Louise Eldrich. That book was upsetting to me but yet I couldn't draw myself away from it. Maybe this one will be the same.

Jenny said...

That kind of dysfunction can definitely be frustrating to read about! I also get frustrated when someone can't see someone or thing else for what they are (real life or fiction) but despite the topic it sounds like the author put it all together well!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I liked what you had to say about this one. I read it and although there were not any likeable characters, there was something that kept me "listening" to find out more --dark and depressing for sure.

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like Vann can write well, but I think his story might be too sad for me right now.

Jenners said...

This does sound brutal and dark and dysfuctnional. It makes me want to read it, quite honestly. Sometimes I like reading these types of books .... it makes me feel better about my life.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

ooh, interesting! I've read high praise of CARIBOU ISLAND, even though you didn't LIKE it (or the characters and their situation), it certainly struck a chord to get a reaction out of you (powerful, strong writing).

I've seen those marriages - anger at each other, held for years and years (decades?). And I wonder how people get (and stay) in those situations.

I'm not sure CARIBOU ISLAND is for me, but I might give it a try, because Vann's writing seems so effective.

Audra said...

Fabu review -- I have an ARC of this but haven't picked it up yet -- the dark, oppressive feel you describe might me too much for me! Certainly that grim marriage is!

Geosi said...

If you were put off by the characters behavior, then I doubt if I would like his. However, this is a beautifully written review. Thanks.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

This is definitely a dark book - no hope in this one at all. It screams endless despair! But, for some reason, I actually enjoyed it, if I can use that word. I was disappointed in the daughter and wanted her to wake up, but...unfortunately, sometimes people live in that denial, you know? Very sad book, no question about it.

Amy said...

I love the cover of this book but what a bleak, grim story and so depressing.
It sounds like Irene and Gary are in an awful rut and neither one has the strength to pull away and start over. Their irritation with each other is turning towards hatred. Eeek! I'm sure their treatment of each other impacts those around them, too. And it sounds like Rhoda has raised denial to new levels. It so sad how desperatley she wamts Jim. All the characters seem so dark and down and Monique malevolent. What I really wondered while reading your review is if the author is a happy or troubled man. I am curious as to how it ends but I don't know if I'm curious enough to read it! I hope you had something uplifting to read after this book!

Lisa said...

I'm down for darkness and dysfunction and I think that any book that evokes this emotional a response makes it one worth picking up.

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