Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Caribou Island.
Ordinarily a marriage gone sour after thirty years can be mitigated by friends and family, a cushion against bitterness and roads not taken. But it is Gary’s very essence that drives a wedge between husband and wife - his need to breach new frontiers, abandoning failures before they are admitted and moving on to another distraction. In the decision to erect a poorly-executed cabin on Caribous Island in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Gary and Irene’s lives are pared down to man vs. nature, youth long fled and with it the resources to tackle the real problems of wilderness survival: “He hadn’t yet…understood the pure longing for what was really a kind of annihilation.”
Because of her family history, Irene has cosigned Gary’s adventures, but the physical creates another adversary in this dark triangle: the indifference of nature. Clearly a reckoning is at hand between Irene, Gary and the wilderness that minimizes options and tolerance. Vann’s novel is weighted with the detritus of relationships and aspirations, each character isolated with his own secrets and entrenched inability to communicate. Daughter Rhoda bounces between parents, thirty years of their civility unraveling, her engagement to a local dentist yielding neither hope nor joy but the ashy taste of a mistake.
While son Mark distracts himself with his fishing business, overindulgence in high-grade weed with his live-in girlfriend and complete disassociation with the rest of the family, Rhoda senses a familiar landscape shifting, her parents all but unreachable on Caribou Island in their self-imposed isolation. Given the early onset of winter, a too-late start and the debilitating pain Irene suffers (with no cause that doctors can identify), it is impossible to imagine a happy resolution to this novel. Tragedy is on the horizon in a land of epiphanies, where moments of revelation transcend the habits of a lifetime, a marriage stripped bare by the viciousness of words unleashed in a moment of rage and frustration.
“The world came in different sizes… that expansive feeling, of connection, could moments later feel smaller, hard and cold.” Such is Gary’s perspective, grown more impersonal as the battle is engaged to create a habitable space on the island. As his shortcomings close in, Gary resorts to furious action, diatribes against his wife, anything but the truth of what he has wrought. For Irene and Rhoda, the reality is more intimate: the broken glass of failed expectations too painful to leave untended. They have placed their hopes in men, then been forced to accept the fallacy inherent in such abdication, the forfeiture of self and the resentment that festers between couples in the unrelenting grind of daily life. So entrenched are Gary, Irene, Rhoda and, to a lesser degree, Rhoda’s fiancé, Jim, that whatever love exists has lost the power to heal: “If you took the wrong path, all you could shape was monstrosity.”