x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Caribou Island by David Vann

The state of Alaska is the central figure in this meandering novel of family drama wound through the building of a log cabin.

The central character of Caribou Island has no dialogue, yet steers the plot as surely as any Homeric archetype. It is Alaska, a setting that lifts, depresses, beats down and ultimately buries hopes, dreams and fears.

That is a telling point, however, as no one else seems to do much of anything in this beautifully written tale, at least in a linear sense. Relationships sputter and festering emotional wounds rub raw, but the only action involves the building of a log cabin on the book's titular island.

Its future occupants, Gary and Irene, have been married for decades and are struggling to figure out what they mean to each other while constructing the poorly planned house and confronting a sudden, painful malady affecting Irene. Their daughter is hoping to marry a philandering dentist; their son is a fisherman. And that's it. A few other people wander in and out, tweak the inertia of the others, then depart as everyone's lives spiral downward.

The plot is thin and Vann embraces the annoying literary conceit of eschewing quotation marks, but muscular description and deep characters make this novel impossible to put down.

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