Set in the Alaskan wilderness, David Vann’s Caribou Island is about the slow dissolution of a thirty-year marriage. The main characters, Gary and Irene, blame each other for their failures and setbacks in life. Irene, whose past is marked by tragedy, is convinced that Gary is going to leave her; he denies it. In one last half-hearted attempt to salvage their marriage, Irene agrees to help Gary build a log cabin out on Caribou Island, where they intend to spend the Alaskan winter holed up with each other.
The book shows promise at first; although I was initially a little lost with the revolving door of secondary characters, the dark tone of the book is established first few paragraphs. Unfortunately, as the book progressed, I found myself growing more and more annoyed with the writing. Most of the characters are emotionally detached from each other, Irene in particular. Vann establishes this emotional fragmentation of the characters by…sprinkling in lots of sentence fragments (although the fragments quickly became the least of my problems with the story).
I hesitate to write what I’m about to write, because I hate when other people list it as the reason for not liking a book: none of the characters in this books are likeable.
Except I don’t mean it in a, “they were so whiny/mean/needy/[insert negative descriptor here]” kind of way–although those would be fitting adjectives for the characters in Caribou Island. A lot of the characters in my favorite books are not “likeable.” They’re manipulative, cruel, and downright hateful. They’re assholes I would not want to know in real life. And yet I find myself loving those books–and their unlikeable characters–because the author has written those characters in a way that makes them accessible to the reader. I may be horrified by those characters’ actions, but because I’ve been drawn into their world, I can understand the motivations behind the things these unlikeable characters do.
I never felt that with Gary and Irene.
When I first read the description of Caribou Island, I’d hoped to meet some more of these unlikeable-likeable characters. To my dismay, Gary’s and Irene’s motivations come to the reader in brief, formulaic snippets. Irene’s character especially relies on tired tropes of the long-suffering, hysterical wife. Had there been less obvious foreshadowing throughout the book, perhaps I would have felt differently about the climax.
Rather than slowly unlocking new insights about each of the characters’ actions, I found myself (correctly) guessing the end of the book with about a hundred pages to spare. Overall, the bleak descriptions of the Alaskan landscapes are evocative; unfortunately, I’m afraid the story itself is not.