If you visit here regularly you may recall that one of the many literary highlights of 2010 for us was the day that David Vann and his wife Nancy, travelling around the West Country last summer, called in and had tea with us.
He is the funniest, most self-effacing man with a highly infectious laugh and Nancy is an absolute delight, so just imagine us all eating a Devon cream tea and David, Bookhound and the Gamekeeper all talking about their hunting, shooting and fishing experiences while Nancy and I looked at each other and pulled grimaces of the highest order. Nancy, like me, is not really au fait with the ins and outs of gralloching a deer.
David had very kindly done dovegreyreader asks... last year in two parts, but it was good to talk to him for real about Legend of a Suicide, a book I read and had really invested with time and reading energy. It had moved me tremendously, I found it to be a profound and meaningful book and David signed my copy with a really lovely inscription. But last August, January and Caribou Island seemed light years away, yet here we are, publication week and though my copy duly arrived a few weeks ago I was almost too nervous to read it.
What if I didn't like it?
What if David's first novel didn't match up to the extraordinary experience that had been Legend of a Suicide?
No worries, I think Caribou Island might be even better because I've met the unforgettable couple, Gary and Irene. Set in the challenging outpost that is Alaska (well it feels like a challenge from the comfort of the comparitively temperate Tamar Valley, though I think David did find our single track lanes quite a torment) Gary has entered his moment of life crisis and decides, in his retirement, to build a log cabin on an off-shore island for himself , and perhaps, but not definitely, his wife Irene to live in. Now we are not talking Hawaii here (but we will be later this week) we're talking way up off the coast of Alaska and an island in a glacier-fed lake, so I vow you will never meet a more long-suffering martyr of a wife than Irene.
If the marriage is failing and this log cabin is Gary's way of salvaging it then really you'd have thought Irene would have got the message by now, and thankfully she almost has. Clinging on to the last vestiges of hope, Irene suffers from agonising and excruciating headaches which no one, least of all Gary takes much notice of. Eventually Irene's internal pain becomes her voice, the expression of all that is wrong and intolerable about her life with Gary, but meanwhile you can only feel for the poor woman, dragged along by habit and loyalty and the feint and occasional hope that things might get better. Poor, poor Irene I thought, as she perched in the boat balancing logs and roofing sheets in a force ten gale and lashing sleet and snow, and camped out for days on end as they travelled back and forth to the island, because Gary isn't doing this in summer, no, it's autumn so it has to be done in a hurry.
This felt like brilliant and gifted writing, no question, and as always with David's writing there is plenty to dwell on, this time I was acutely aware of all the food. No Devon scones feature but David uses food to good effect ...as solace with warm nourishing pies, in times of stress his characters turn to cold shredded salads and raw ingredients and when things are downright dreadful, David goes to source and working in a fish factory, which for someone like me who can't abide fish really did take some stomaching.
This is what a nice cabin looks like on the real Caribou Island. It's got 90deg corners, the logs meet roughly where they should and the window and the door are in the right-ish places. There's a whole roof and a chimney and everything, all mod cons, Irene would have loved this... even I might have hacked it for a week, and indeed this could have been the cabin that Gary keeps going to look at to see what he needs to do next.
The consequences of Gary's epic-build, were the book not so overlain with the potential for tragedy, are actually verging on the hilarious, and I could almost hear David's voice and laughter as he describes the Heath-Robinson, lop-sided, draughty hovel that starts to emerge. This is definitely not Grand Designs, (Bookhound's favourite TV programme,) Kevin McCloud would be shaking his head in disbelief because there are no plans, and with only a cursory measure and site check, Gary hasn't thought a great deal through, and nor does he have the first clue about building (he could have used some lessons from you-know-who How to Build...) so he makes it up as he goes along with the inevitable disasters. The moment when Gary has roofed himself into an impossible corner is the essence of farce but the situation for Gary and Irene is way too serious to laugh... though David Vann describes it in a way that really makes you want to.
By this stage the couple are barely communicating, things have reached that point of no return and as Irene valiantly props up the heavy roof sheet you sense she is propping up a whole lot more besides and she won't be able to take the weight much longer. Whilst from Gary's point of view perhaps his impasse with the roof resembles the place he and Irene have reached in their lives and their marriage, cornered, no plan, no solid foundations, no way forward, no way back and no amount of re-thinking seems likely to sort this one out. This marriage is as draughty and leaky and unstable and cobbled together as this cabin, one big huff and puff from the wolf would see it off, and no warmth is ever going to remain inside with those great huge gaps between the logs anyway. Likewise nothing will staunch the massive haemmorhage of Gary and Irene's love.
Hovering around in the background are Gary and Irene's children, Mark and Rhoda. Mark a bit of a casual and carefree spirit, Rhoda quite the opposite, a perfectionist and a worrier especially with regard to her parents (and rightly so) and a traditionalist having cornered her partner Jim the dentist into committing to a marriage he is very uncertain about. Jim has decided he will go through with the marriage but at the same time he'll commit to a life of infidelity and womanising, and as he starts to keep fit and to rid himself of his 'muffin top' to cope with the demands I suddenly wondered if I already knew Jim the dentist. Was I reading a prequel to those events in Legend of a Suicide? If so this adds a whole new and exciting twist to this book.
In any case I was always bracing for that David Vann 'moment', which anyone who has read Legend of a Suicide will know to brace for... and in the same way that I took that vow of silence and non-disclosure then, I'm taking it again now, so not another word except to say you might not want to miss Caribou Island.
And for anyone in London, if there are tickets left, you also might not want to miss David Vann at the LRB Bookshop tomorrow evening.