Book Review: Caribou Island

On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, a tragedy is occurring. Its inevitability is heartbreaking; we can only watch as Gary and Irene, married 30 years, are coming undone. Madness, violence, oceans of regret over roads not taken finally come to a head when Gary insists that they will build a cabin on remote Caribou Island. Irene knows that Gary wants to leave her, and his method is building the cabin of his dreams--finally. He knows that it will be so sparse and miserable that Irene will leave him, so he can be the good guy.

As with everything else in his life, this, too, is doomed to fail. He doesn't know how to build a cabin. They came to Alaska years ago, young adventurers fresh out of college, and everything that Gary touched went sour. Irene took a job as a preschool teacher, supported the family and swallowed her resentment. What had become of that graduate student she fell in love with? She really liked her work, but now is retired.

Gary insists on taking the boat filled with lumber out to the island on a very cold and windy day. Irene develops a piercing pain in her head after that outing, and sees two doctors, the last of whom tells her to see a psychiatrist because x-ray and CT scans show nothing. The pain persists, growing worse with time.

Even Vann's secondary characters are fully realized. Rhoda and Mark are Gary and Irene's grown children; she's a vet's assistant, he's a fisherman in season and a doper the rest of the time. Rhoda has moved in with the local dentist and is waiting to hear a proposal. It isn't until he has had a very unexpected affair that he decides to propose--having determined that it is possible to cheat, he can now get married.

This is Vann's debut novel, following Legend of a Suicide, short stories and a novella, and a memoir, A Mile Down. He has complete control of his material. This might be his 10th novel or his 20th, such is his mastery of language, landscape, human desire, the dark side that waxes and overwhelms profoundly disappointed people. He foreshadows the horrible conclusion perfectly. These are disconnected people, writing both sides of the script, glancing off each other like cueballs. Nothing works as it should in this book except the book itself, which is perfect.--Valerie Ryan

Shelf Talker: In the frozen wilds of Alaska, a marriage that was never very good will not be able to stand the latest test: let's build a cabin with all the wrong tools, boards that are too short and the weather against us. Soul-killing conversation and accusations abound and the conclusion is horrifying, even though we see it coming. 


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