Channels like Discovery make out the inhabitants of Alaska to be real pioneers: people who leave the crowded civilized world and build a new life in the wilderness with their own bare hands, being attacked by bears and enduring hardships willingly. That image is tackled efficiently by David Vann. Married couple Gary and Irene live a life that is as suburban as that of the average inhabitant of suburbia. It becomes quite clear that Gary would have preferred the more romantic pioneer image. He is determined to build his own cabin on an uninhabited island and live there. No amenities, just him and nature and oh, let’s not forget, Irene. It’ll surprise no-one that building the cabin is the beginning of the end. Gary turns out to be a person who cannot make up his mind, always on the lookout for a better life somewhere in his romanticized image of the wilderness and true pioneers; he has only a vague notion of what his cabin should look like, no clue of how to build it and even less notion of planning things. As a result he and Irene build their cabin towards the start of autumn whilst rain and snow make their work almost impossible. Not having thought about the construction beforehand Gary only realizes that he misses quite the number of components whilst building, nowhere near handy shops. The couple struggles with the rickety cabin and with each other. Irene ends up with a severe sinus infection and a headache that refuses to go away. There is no doubt that the headache is psychological, physical reasons having been deduced by the doctors. It is fear that causes her headache: fear of living on an island in a one-room cabin without electricity, water, a decent bathroom or a toilet. Fear also of Gary wanting to leave her and of her starting to resemble her mother who committed suicide. Irene is having a major breakdown and only one person suspects, her daughter Rhoda. She has her own problems dealing with her fiancée, an opportunistic dentist showing the first signs of mid-life crisis. Brother Mark turns out to be the more life-like inhabitant of Alaska: work, earn money, have some fun, drink, blow and do not think ahead. When Rhoda finally convinces him that something is wrong with their mother, she is too late. Irene has shot Gary with her bow and arrow and has hung herself.
Caribou Island is not a cheerful novel. Life in Alaska is not a romanticized picnic. David Vann depicts just plain regular lives and regular relationships, not necessarily happy ones. Vann depicts the countryside and the emotional turmoil of Gary, Irene and Rhoda beautifully though in a slightly too detached way. The novel never really got to me, which in a way is cleverly done. My incapacity to become involved corresponds nicely with the incapacity of Gary, Irene, Rhoda and Mark to get along, with each other, with life and with Alaska.