Legend of a Suicide by David Vann Penguin 2009

By Neil McCormick

I am not sure if I am alone in doing this, but I have a top three books, that over the years, I will return to and in doing so, it feels like I am catching up with old friends. After reading this book, I now have a fourth book to add to the list.

From reading the first letter to the final full stop, Legend of a Suicide by David Vann, has been a delight. I implore, that if you only read one more book in 2009, you make it this book.

I am not alone with this view:-

“Oh my god, Legend of a Suicide just bowled me over completely. It is such a tender, heartbreaking, breathtaking, horrifying and insanely compelling read that when I finished it I went straight back to the beginning and round again. I implore anyone with functioning eyes to read this book”

(Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine )

As the title suggests, the book tackles one of society’s greatest taboo’s : Suicide. Whilst it is an emotive subject, perhaps what sets this tale apart, is the fact that the author’s own father committed suicide. I hope in writing this book the author has been able to resolve any issues he may have had with his father’s passing.

Legend of a Suicide consists of 5 short stories and 1 novella, initially printed separately, but now brought together in one book. Whist initially, one might have expected the story arc to appear disjointed by doing this – the stories really do work together. By linking the separate storys into this one volume, Vann reflects in different ways on the effects of suicide, whilst the character names remain constant in each tale, the approach each time is slightly different. Perhaps this is hinted at by the very title of the book “Legend of a suicide”. For legend means a tale (or collection of related tales) popularly regarded as true but usually containing a mixture of fact and fiction. From the outset, you can deduce that the book will be a piece of fiction all be it with an element of truth, lurking within.

My favourite was the novella Sukkwan Island. This was Vann at the top of his game, the prose crackled, and one could almost taste the cold salty Alaskan air. It was also, this novella, in which i read one of the most shocking scenes ever produced in a book. I am not going to spoil it for you by revealing too much on the subject. All I will say, is, you think Vann is heading in one direction and expect an event to occur, it does happen but not the way you expected. I literally had to stop, learn to breath again, pick myself up from off the floor and re read what had just happened. Sukkwann Island really consists of two tales, the first half deals with events from the perspective of Roy and the latter half from his fathers perspective.

It is Vann’s talents as a wordsmith, describing the wilderness, and the constant weight of burden that the harsh weather is placing on the two characters that is worthy of praise. You can feel that whilst the characters are lone in the wilderness, they feel suffocated by all the elements. One thing that does come across is how Roy’s father is verging on going over the edge, from the lack of preparation for the trip, to the inability to deal with problems that occur.

It was terrifying trying to place onself in Roy’s position, how would I deal with a father that by day portrays himself as being totally in control but would at night crumble into a depressed state, weeping and despairing of his situation. But come the next day there would be no mention of the previous night. Jim should be held to account for his actions, it felt so many times throughout the tale that he was placing too big a burden on his son. When Roy asks to leave, Jim uses emotional blackmail to persuade Roy to stay. Yet , Vann still manages to make the reader pity rather than despise Jim.

This has been a great read, the other tales in the book, are not as harsh and contain an element of humour that is missing from Sukkwan Island. All I will say, is a child psychologist would have a field day if they got to assess Roy in the first story “Ichthyology”. He describes how his father would task him with preventing the fish from escaping the boat.

“Between us a kind of understanding developed: if they didn’t flop, I didn’t smash their heads withthe hammer. But sometimes, when the ride was especially wild and we were all thrown again and again into the ai and their blood ans slime were all over me, I gave out a few extra whacks…”

As I mentioned at the start, I really hope that in writing this book, Vann has been able to come to terms with his own father’s passing. As Roy’s mother said at the end of the book in the final story “The Higher Blue” –

“I don’t have to be angry anymore, I can feel sorry for him now”

Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Penguin (29 Oct 2009)
ISBN-10: 0141043784
ISBN-13: 978-0141043784

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