Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Caribou Island.
This desolate potboiler takes place in the Alaskan wilderness, where fractured relationships seem to unfurl with devastating speed. I found Vannís poetic novel initially alluring, with its fluid descriptions of the natural world
and its stormy sense of atmosphere, but with characters who are mostly stunningly narcissistic or self-absorbed, this tale quickly became an arduous read.
Her hopes for marriage to Jim, a successful dentist, hanging like a mirage in the distance,
veterinarian assistant Rhoda spends her days yearning - albeit quietly - for the comfort of her parents, Gary and Irene, who have set off to Caribou Island in intemperate, stormy weather. Jim and Rhoda had been getting along quite well, until Jim
recently plunged into an illicit affair with Monique, a girl little more than half his age.
Gary and Irene have their own problems. Building a cabin in the wilderness, Gary dreams of a frontier life. Determined to build their cabin from scratch with no foundation and no advice welcome, Gary and Irene spend their days hauling logs to construct the ramshackle hut. Gary is impatient with his wife and children, and with the larger shape of his life. Guilty of the crime of association, Gary is convinced his marriage is a thing of pressure and weight.
This is also strange time for Irene. Rhoda and her son, Mark, are gone; recently retired, Irene suddenly finds herself missing the productivity of work. Only Gary is left, and heís not the
same man she had began her married life with. Irritated and angry at her husband, she tries not to remember her tragic past and the momentum of who she
has become in Alaska.
Dark skies and stormy waters swell. Gary and Irene's recriminations play out in a landscape of isolation; neither knows how to slow the bitter thrust of so many years. As ice-cold rain
slices toward Irene, pounding like ďa white shadow over the water,Ē she realizes she's been trapped in Garyís life and regrets. Irene's world closes in as a series of crippling headaches take hold. Like a violent storm, her madness gathers strength, the edges closer and closer, and her fears become a powerful force for destruction.
Evoking the natural beauty of the Kenai Peninsula ("the spongy green and purple moss, and the stunted trees of the tundra plain"), Vann portrays his characters as crevassed and as bent as the giant Skilak Glacier,
itself almost alive and "so vividly a thing of pressure." When the action takes a serious turn, threats of blackmail and primeval rape fantasies quickly transform the story into something much darker.
As Vannís novel soaks up a frontier wilderness, I soon found myself losing interest, my reaction to these people at best ambivalent. The author's prose is muscular and his storytelling skills strong, but much like the dark bands of rain that appear throughout, there's a constant sense of doom-laden self-pity and a landscape of bitterness which quickly translates into 293 pages of self-involved whining.