All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Caribou Island – David Vann

on November 26, 2010

I feel as though this book should almost come with some sort of warning. It should be a bible for everyone out there who thinks they want to go and build a cabin somewhere in isolation and live there. Because chances are, they don’t know what they’re doing, don’t really want to go and actually do that and….that’ll be the least of the things that can go wrong.

Gary and Irene have lived in Alaska for 30 years. Drifting there by accident, somehow staying. Gary is a restless sort, he has many grand plans and ideas but very few ever come to fruition, particular the fruition he dreams of. But his latest plan is sure to be different! He wants to leave their cottage and build a log cabin himself on an island accessible only by boat (and then only accessible in the warmer months of the year) and live there, permanently. No electricity, no running water, no telephone, no internet, no tv. Just man-vs-nature. And he’s dragging Irene along for the ride.

Irene is sure Gary is going to leave her, eventually and the prospect terrifies her. He’s been withdrawing from her slowly, pulling away. Their marriage is unravelling and Irene thinks this cabin will be the end of it. She’s gone along with Gary, supported him in everything and she even does so with this cabin but she doesn’t want to go and live on the island. She’s doing it because Gary wants to and because she still loves him. And wants to be with him.

Rhoda, Gary and Irene’s daughter is desperate to get married. She’s living with Jim, a reliable, financially independent dentist who is ten years her senior. Even though they’ve talked of marriage many times, Jim hasn’t yet popped the question. Rhoda doesn’t even know what Jim really wants – does he want to get married? Or did he just ask her to move with with him so that he has sex on tap and someone to run his errands? Is Rhoda so desperate to get married that she’s settling? And if Jim does propose, will that actually make her happy?

From the time I was 7, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote all the time, filling exercise books with stories. And when I was in high school I thought that living in some remote cabin in the wilds of Alaska (or other equally isolated location) would be amazing. No distractions! Just plenty of time to write and think. Even if I still had any dreams to do exactly that, this book would have well cured me of them! For starters, Gary just basically piles up a boat with logs, picks a random spot on the island, marks out what seems like an impossibly small outline (about 12ft by 6ft or something ridiculous) and starts basically sawing and hammering logs together. Gary is one of those permanently unsatisfied people who drifts through their lives, doing nothing with them and then blaming everyone else around for their lack of accomplishment. He was quite a loathsome character and the more bullheaded and stubborn and abusive he got about his disaster of a cabin, the more I wanted him to fall off his stupid makeshift roof and break his neck. Irene, on the other hand, as it seems to go with bullying men, was a doormat. She didn’t want to go out there and help build the cabin, or live in it and she plainly comes to a realisation that Gary has never loved her and just ended up with her because of his apathy and lack of drive and planning. Instead of growing a brain and a spine and getting back in the boat and leaving him and going home to their cabin with electricity and heating, she continues sleeping in a tent as the storms and snow come and spending days hammering and nailing and being bossed around by Gary. It’s a story of hopelessness all around and you can’t help but be dragged into the sombre mood.

The weather is the perfect backdrop for this sort of novel – the Alaskan weather seems to be famous. Its beauty and its isolation go hand in hand and because Gary is Gary and hasn’t planned this whole cabin thing, it’s the end of summer and there’s not much time left before the weather starts to go pear shaped. Among the screaming winds and driving rain, the choppy lake and the slushy roads are peaceful forests and lakes of glass. It makes me want to go and live in Alaska but in a definite spoiled princess kind of way – a cabin that looks rustic but is actually palatial – equipped with a power shower and functioning bathroom, fluffy carpets, ducted heating and a wood fireplace, cable TV and internet. I could admire all Alaska’s beauty from the warmth and comfort of my cabin! Of course this is not real Alaska, but if I wanted that experience I could very well end up like Irene. Or Gary. The author is a native of Alaska and it shows – his descriptions are vivid and flawless and real. His writing is solid and harsh – almost like diving into an Alaskan lake. It’s a spray with icy water, no holds barred, no beating around the bush. Flaws are exposed and lay open for criticism. Emotions are bared for all to see. The characters are all too believable, all too real – we’ve all known someone like Gary, someone who is so full steam ahead with their own ideas and importance that they don’t stop to consider practicalities and planning for one minute, so that they avoid crashing headlong into one disaster after the other. We’ve all known people like Irene, who are tired, exhausted, wavering but sticking with it, staying in a situation that makes them unhappy, because they love the person creating the situation. We all know someone like Rhoda, who is sure that she could just be happy, if only Jim would propose.

That might be the most depressing thing of all – because we all know people like these characters, with similar characteristics, you know there can’t be a happy ending.


Book #96 of my 100 Book Challenge

****I received this novel as an eGalley from the publisher in exchange for a review. Caribou Island will be published by HarperCollins on the 18th January 2011.

This book also satisfies some criteria for my What’s In A Name?3 Challenge! This one fits into criteria #1 – Read a book with a food in the title. Although I’m not sure if I’d eat caribou (reindeer! at this time of the year I’m not sure I could tuck into Rudolph) it is very popular in Scandinavian countries and areas like Alaska and Siberia.

Four lots of criteria satisfied. 2 to go – Read a book with a body of water in the title and read a book with a place name in the title


One response to “Caribou Island – David Vann

  1. […] Vann Caribou Island blogged elsewhere: Just William’s Luck; Savidge Reads; Dovegreyreader; All the Books I Can Read. « A joke for Saturday LikeBe the first to like this […]

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