Title: Caribou Island
Author: David Vann
Narrator: Bronson Pinchot
Audiobook Length: 8 hours, 18 minutes
Synopsis (Courtesy of IndieBound): “On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unraveling. Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are trying to rebuild their life together. Following the outline of Gary’s old dream, they’re hauling logs to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to build the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place.
But this island is not right for Irene. They are building without plans or advice, and when winter comes early, the overwhelming isolation of the prehistoric wilderness threatens their bond to the core. Caught in the emotional maelstrom is their adult daughter, Rhoda, who is wrestling with the hopes and disappointments of her own life. Devoted to her parents, she watches helplessly as they drift further apart.”
Thoughts: Caribou Island is a difficult novel to review, but more importantly, it is a difficult novel to read. Gary and Irene, Jim and Rhoda, and the rest of the cast of characters are simply not enjoyable people. They are each seriously flawed, and their flaws help create relationships that are given more strength than truly exist. The landscape is stark and brutal, and each character mirrors that. It is a depressing, hopeless existence that makes reading, or listening, painful and slow.
However, it demands to be read. There is something compelling about watching Gary and Irene unravel as the novel progresses. It isn’t voyeurism, as the reader truly does not want to watch it, but it is the faintest sense of hope that everything will be okay. Irene will recover from her blinding headaches, and Gary will realize what a fool’s errand the cabin truly is. Jim will realize how idiotic he is being in his fascination with Monique, and Rhoda will learn to stand up for herself. These possibilities drive the reader to keep turning the page, even when the story seems at its bleakest.
As always, Bronson Pinchot is a worthy narrator. He is able to balance the sense of despair and the glimmer of hope that exists in each character, while ensuring that each voice is unique and appropriate for each character. His ability to dive into each character’s mind and express more than the words on the page makes Caribou Island a breathtaking audio experience.
Caribou Island is not for everyone, especially one who may be struggling with depression. It is dark and disturbing with very little to ease the tension or the despair. For myself, I found I could only listen in short bursts, foregoing listening to it while at work because it impacted my mood too severely. At times, it got to be a bit too much, but I never failed to dwell on what was happening and had to keep reading. Time and again, it made me flinch while appreciating the bleak backdrop of a seemingly hopeless story. David Vann has captured perfectly and shared his understanding of the secrets we keep from each other and even from ourselves.