Friederike Knabe's Reviews > Legend of a Suicide

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
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's review
Jan 04, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: us-lit
Read from January 19 to 30, 2011

Whether or not you know about the author's personal context (touched on in the Acknowledgements) that led him to write this deeply affecting and thought provoking collection of stories, the title itself implies that it will be anything but an "easy read". Not a book I would have picked up without strong recommendations. Five short stories, structurally grouped around the substantial and central novella, are linked together through Roy and his relationship to his father Jim, a former dentist turned luckless commercial fisherman and wilderness hunter in the wilds of Alaska.

David Vann uses the first three stories to set out in brief the backdrop for Roy's early life, from living as a small child in Ketchikan, Alaska, to leaving for California to a different life with his mother. Already in the first story we learn that the father, not able to cope with the realization of his various plans and ventures, forgoes his "many lives": on his ship, he takes a gun and commits suicide. The last two stories are set many years later and see Roy return to Ketchikan to attempt to reconnect with the memories of his father and to confront his own lingering and conflicting emotions that he carried since his childhood.

The writing in the short stories is detached and even young Roy's psychological turmoil is told in somewhat oblique tones. The emotional and imaginative power of Vann's writing, however, blows into the reader's face like an Arctic storm as soon as the novella, "Sukkwan Island" begins. Thirteen-year old Roy has accepted his father's invitation to spend a year with him "homesteading" in a cabin on this remote island in south-eastern Alaska. Intended to enable father and son to get to know each other better, they embark on an adventure neither of them could have imagined. Vann's evocation of the landscape's harsh and rugged beauty, the deep isolation that sets human beings against the natural elements and the dangers looming in the wild, is thoroughly captivating as it is intimate and personal. The daily challenges posed by the outer environment are reflecting deeply on the psychological dramas inside: neither son nor father seem to be able to confront their demons or fears.

Vann depicts the interplay between environment and human soul magnificently, like in this example: "The cloud enclosed him and his father in their own sound so that he could hear his own breath and the blood in his temples as if it were outside of him and this too increased his sense of being watched, even hunted. His father's footsteps just ahead of him sounded enormous. The fear spread through him until he was holding his breath in tight gasps and couldn't ask to go back."

Occasional physical successes, such as building the food cache or hauling in a good catch of fish result in positive energy, spreading temporary relief also to the reader. However, these glimpses of relaxation are alternating with longer and longer periods of deep despair and hopelessness until events reach the unavoidable climactic action. Nothing will be the same after that. Nothing is as expected or anticipated. From then on the story follows the dramatic aftermath and fall-out from the suicide. The poignant intensity of the experiences told in the novel's second part challenges our understanding of the resilience of the human mind when faced with mental illness and extreme crises.

With LEGEND OF A SUICIDE Vann has created one of the most intensely imagined, deeply moving portrait of a father-son pair who, in their effort to become closer through spending time together in a remote wilderness, fail completely. They are totally unprepared as they struggle for survival in this environment, risking their lives more than once, due to lack of knowledge, confusion and Jim's inability to address his deep despair and emotional and physical pain. At times, especially in the second part, I found some sections too drawn out or, for me, too much beyond the believable and therefore less than convincing. After finishing the intense and highly charged narrative in the novella, I found myself less connected to two last stories of the book. While they picked up the thread to the earlier short stories, the interruption in the narrative flow, created by central novella, was so profound that it rendered the rest less meaningful for me. Noticing that "Sukkwan Island" is being offered as a stand alone novella, I can easily see the attraction of reading it as a separate piece of fiction and let the power of it carry the reader into a different world.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Will Byrnes Wonderful review. I share your admiration for Vann's writing. If you liked this book you will love his novel, Caribou Island .

Friederike Knabe Thanks for your comment Will. I do have Caribou Island on my wishlist and will eventually get to it. I tend to read "around the globe" most of the time, currently having just read and reading more about Cambodia and other South-East Asian issues...

Will Byrnes I read a pretty good book about Cambodia some years back, by Phillip Gourevich - We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. I read it long before I began with Goodreads, so cannot offer a review, only a dim recollection that it was very moving and very disturbing.

Friederike Knabe Thanks Will. I am a bit confused, though, you talk about Cambodia but the title of the book seems to say "Rwanda"...? After reading Madeleine Thien's "Dogs at the Perimeter" (see my review on GR) I have two more books to go through written by survivors...

Will Byrnes Obviously you are not as confused as I was. Sorry. Somehow I conflated Rwanda and Cambodia and created a nifty stir-fry of duh. The only thing I can offer in my own defense is that it was a long time since I read it, and I cut and pasted the title. Had I entered it manually, I probably would have caught that rather glaring error. I am turning bright red writing this.

Friederike Knabe That's quite alright... and both countries went through a horrific genocide...

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