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Caribou Island    by David Vann order for
Caribou Island
by David Vann
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Harper, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

A haunting story based on a tragic piece of family history, David Vann's debut is one readers won't forget. Set in the Alaskan wilderness, this is the tale of a marriage that goes terribly bad after decades of frustration, failed expectations and compromises finally tips a woman over the edge.

Thirty years ago Irene and Gary moved to Alaska and settled on a remote lake on the Kenai Peninsula. Now, an aging Gary wants to build a cabin on Caribou Island in the middle of the lake. Without plumbing or electricity, this will be an even more isolated dwelling and nourish Gary's desire to live the ultimate wilderness existence.

Although she has serious misgivings, Irene goes along with the hair brain scheme. And, as she helps build the cabin, Irene comes down with a series of physical ailments that turn into a chronic problem. Her headaches seen to exacerbate the growing despair that Irene is struggling to deal with.

Rhoda, the couple's daughter, sees her mother struggling with her physical problems and does what she can to help. Unfortunately, the thirty year old woman has her own problems, for the man she is living with is engaged in an affair.

With the makeshift cabin underscoring both the futility of her husband's romantic notions of rustic living and his life-long inability to make anything work, Irene comes closer and closer to the breaking point. Now isolated on the island, the couple finally confront their real feelings and express their long bottled-up vitriol.

Rather than clear the air, the argument pushes Irene over the edge and she begins to contemplate the unthinkable. Her fury finally plays out with inconceivable, if inevitable, consequences. Even though the reader can see it coming, the dark ending of this striking novel still has a jarring, emotional impact.

Played out against the rugged, natural beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, this haunting tale of unrealized dreams and emotional atrophy announces the arrival of a new, young writer whose talents have already been recognized for his short fiction.

A professor at the University of San Francisco, David Vann's collection of short stories, Legend of a Suicide, has collected eight international awards since it was released in 2008.

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