David Vann admits in his acknowledgments that he was writing about an uncomfortable topic, his father's suicide during his own childhood and confiding that
'there's exposure in these stories. They're fictional but based on a lot that's true.'
To my mind that's a high risk personal strategy involving courage and
emotional maturity, a confidence in your own ability to be able to take
it all out and look at it again, probably recall some of the most
traumatic events in your life, because the suicide of a close relative
forces those left behind to traverse a lifelong territory they had no intention of
That journey can be a minefield and, whilst reading Legend of a Suicide as fiction, I inevitably spent a great deal of time wondering where those mines had been laid for David Vann. If something like this happens in childhood the problem is compounded, that loss has to be re-experienced again and again through each stage into adulthood and beyond, each time it surfaces it may be as raw and excruciating as it the day it happened, so I don't underestimate the difficulties David Vann may have encountered.
Phyllis Silverman has written one of the best books I have come across on the subject of bereaved children, those young but 'fully-fledged mourners', A Parent's Guide to Raising Grieving Children. I refer to it constantly in my day to day work and she talks of her book as a 'road map for a long journey'. I know the 'journey' word is becoming a bit of a cliche these days (from X Factor to Strictly via I'm a Celeb) but in the context of mourning I cannot think of a better one, and David Vann's book feels like an integral part of his own journey and that need to make sense of what had happened, perhaps to understand.
Whilst it may be stating the obvious to issue a health warning I'd be negligent not to, Legend of a Suicide may inevitably make for traumatic reading if you have any experience of such a tragedy and
brace yourself for a massive shock about half way through too, quite a devastatingly bizarre and unexpected twist that threw me off course completely. I was settling in and expecting one story when quite suddenly it was as if I'd been turfed out of a slightly uncomfortable hammock, but one I was just about managing to keep balanced and on an even keel.
I metaphorically spent the rest of the book lying on a hard cushionless floor.
The title seemed to be offering me first clues with the various interpretations of that word 'legend', both as an event acquiring mythical status, but also in twenty-first century speak as a hero.
Roy and his father Jim are both legend and hero to each other, but that realisation comes in various ways and at differing times in the book as perceptions are shattered and reshaped constantly between them. Legend of a Suicide consists of five novellas of varying length and narrative perspective and to approach it as a novel makes for interesting reading because it becomes almost impossible to get a sense of reading continuity between them. Each one positions reader and characters slightly differently and perhaps that is the point, the disjointed, jarring moments that don't quite seem to fit and are quite unsettling, once I'd been turned out of that hammock my confusion perhaps mirrored that of the characters in the book.
I haven't told you much about the plot and I don't really want to focus on that for fear of giving anything away but it is Sukkwan Island the backwoods Alaskan survival experience shared by Jim and a thirteen-year old Roy that forms the backbone of the book. Roy becomes father to the man, disturbed by, yet sensitive and perceptive to the needs of his father, whilst Jim is completely unable to 'send his life into another's' and understand his son.
I suspect that like me you will tell no one the details of that shock moment if you read the book.
We have to keep the faith about it as we have kept it over Kevin in Lionel Shriver's book. If someone tries to tell you before you read this, just block your ears and la-la your way through it.
Carol Staudacher in another really excellent book, Beyond Grief, suggests,
' It is vital to understand that suicide is not solely the result of some sudden-bizarre impulse; nor is it one single act which can be isolated and analyzed without examining the whole life context in which it occurred.'
And to some extent that is what David Vann has explored in Legend of a Suicide.
I rarely read what the review pages have to say while I'm reading a book, a bit like I won't ask for directions if I'm lost, I just have to figure these things out for myself and it may take me some time, but once I'd drafted out my thoughts I did have a skate around and this book is getting some really good and well-deserved coverage,
I just can't better Tom Bissell's splendid observation in the New York Times Review so I have to share it here
'The central event of "Sukkwan Island," shocking for several reasons, appears to take place in a parallel universe. The Roy and the father of the other stories cannot be the Roy and the father of this story. Vann does not choose to explain this, and he should not have to. But it is strange, like encountering Borges, in waders, within "A River Runs Through It."
and I was quite relieved to see that Observer reviewer Alexander Linklater and I are of like mind
'Then there is the third thing you need to know which is, rather, something you must not know. As this book reimagines its central death, an event occurs that utterly transforms the encounter between protagonist, father, author and reader. Do not let anyone tell you what this event is before you start. To know what happens in advance would be to spoil not just a narrative surprise in a heart-thumping tale, but the entire apparatus Vann has constructed to wrench out the dreadful and meaningless facts of existence, to master them, and, in a violent act of fictional transmogrification, to reconfigure them as something not less, but more real.'
It wasn't just me that fell out of my hammock and took a vow of silence then.
So I hope I've given you the essence, an emotionally charged and challenging book but one that is echoing and reverberating in mind still, moments when I really thought I might suffocate as I read, but having fought my way to the surface and the final page, a book I am actually glad to have read.
Now it has me searching my shelves for more father and son books and I seem to have a dearth beyond Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and Joseph Roth's Zipper and His Father, so all suggestions welcome.
Meanwhile, if you decide to read Legend of a Suicide I'd love to know your thoughts.