Thirty years ago, Gary and Irene moved to Alaska, to the remote and rugged Kenai Peninsula, whose wilderness held out the promise of possibilities without fetter.

Thirty years ago, Gary and Irene moved to Alaska, to the remote and rugged Kenai Peninsula, whose wilderness held out the promise of possibilities without fetter.


But three decades on, they have weathered many disappointments together. Far from growing stronger as a result, their marriage has grown increasingly brittle. Gary decides the answer is building a cabin on even more remote Caribou Island, to which Irene reluctantly agrees, fearing her tentative hold on her husband will break at least.


In the midst of the project, Irene comes down with a crippling sinus ailment, an unpleasantly common condition that becomes the unlikely catalyst for tragedy.


Meanwhile, their grown daughter, Rhoda, is mired in parallel struggles of her own with her boyfriend Jim, a dentist. On the surface, they appear well on their way to comfort and domestic agreeability – Jim even gets a ring and proposes.


But he has already consigned himself to a life of infidelity after an affair with Monique, a beautiful, wealthy and perennially self-absorbed young woman with smug disdain for her drifter boyfriend, Carl. She observes that she is rich and attractive enough to get through life without feeling the consequences of  her actions, and makes sure Jim knows this.


But Rhoda is too preoccupied with her worries for her mothers’ health, her father’s latest homesteading scheme to sense Jim’s unfaithfulness, even as she pushes back at her own frustration at her life’s inertia.


In beautifully stark language that conveys both the raw physicality of the Alaskan landscape and the naked pain of the characters, “Caribou Island” moves briskly, with compassion, insight and suspense.


The horror at the end cannot be guessed at, but is finely and painfully logical in its unfolding.


Far from a depressing read, “Caribou Island” is satisfying in its story craft and illustration of the human condition, evoking a line from blues singer Robert Cray: “In the silence I can hear their breaking hearts.”


Margaret Smith is Arts editor at GateHouse Media New England's Northwest Unit. E-mail her at msmith@cnc.com.