[Reviewer's own copy]
I follow quite a few “book people” on Twitter and there has been a lot of chatter about this title over the past few months. Sometimes that can really put me off a book (or a film for that matter) but I succumbed eventually and bought my own copy.
The subject matter is necessarily bleak: depressive father takes his life aboard his fishing boat, ‘”his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon.” Jim Fenn is survived by his ex-wife, his son Roy and daughter Tracy. It is Roy’s story that resonates throughout the novel as he fleshes out the events leading up to his father’s death and the aftermath. But this is no linear narrative and in fact, it was only when I came to the middle section of the “novel” I remembered that it is a collection of short stories about the same events told by the two protagonists. And no it isn’t that simple! Suffice to say that Vann plays around with his unreliable narrators, time sequences and so on. The ‘Sukkwan Island’ sequence is at the novel’s core and its tale of father and son surviving for months on end on an uninhabited island with limited resources is harrowing and relentless in its bleakness. But somehow there is beauty and a startling wisdom about depression and neuroses and loneliness. Vann’s characters are selfish and damaged in the main but they are also remarkably real and the language can be beautiful:
“I touched these hides, also, forgotten by my father but watching him, feeling a child’s portion of regret, desire, longing, my father’s longing. If only a life could be bent into the shape of another’s, momentum diminished.”
“Watching the dark shadow moving before him, it seemed as if this were what he had felt for a long time, that his father was something insubstantial before and that if he were to look away for an instant or forget or not follow fast enough and will him to be there, he might vanish, as if it were only Roy’s will that kept him there.”
“Memories are infinitely richer than their origins, I discovered; to travel back can only estrange one even from memory itself. And because memory is often all that a life or a self is built on, returning home can take away exactly that.”
Overall it’s a difficult book to describe but it left me aching but somehow satisfied and grateful to have read it. It is certainly the type of novel that gets quickly under your skin and becomes compulsive!
Read David Vann’s short story writing tips here.