A bleak Alaska serves as backdrop for this unforgiving glimpse into the many miseries that shape a marriage.
The novel opens with Irene sharing a rarely visited childhood memory: the day she came home to find her mother swinging from the rafters. The spare foreboding of the scene shapes Vann’s taut tale of a misbegotten marriage. Decades of resentment, of small acts of unkindness, of a too-isolated life in Alaska, have brought Irene and Gary to this point of reckoning. Disillusioned with their conventional life and comfortable house in the woods, Gary has bought land on the unpopulated Caribou Island. He wants to build a cabin by hand, without plans or expertise, but with just dreams of an alternate life of self-sufficiency to guide him. He tells Irene the cabin (one room, one bed, no plumbing) is for the two of them, that they will spend the winter there alone, and be happy. But Irene isn’t fooled—she can only agree to help with the cabin; if she refuses, she’s sure he’ll leave her. After the first disastrous trip to bring supplies to the island (a brutal storm, a required stoicism), Irene comes down with a headache that grinds her down for weeks. As the marriage disintegrates (made visible in the form of the ramshackle cabin Gary’s building—gaps between the logs, untrue angles, a doorframe angrily nailed on to the outside), their daughter Rhoda finally gets all she has wanted, a marriage proposal from dentist Jim. But while Rhoda fantasizes about a wedding in Hawaii, Jim has been wining and dining and screwing an East Coast trust-fund baby road-tripping in Alaska. Vann’s brilliance lies in is his willingness to expose all—the nasty feelings Gary and Irene harbor for each other, those conversations filled with the kind of cold fury that seem to feed bad marriages. The novel’s end—desolate, violent, heartbreaking—is as inevitable as Rhoda’s own blind plunge into a doomed marriage.
A striking novel filled with the violence borne of a bitter life.