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Review: Halibut on the Moon - David Vann

Updated: Mar 23, 2019

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published: Grove Press, March 2019

My Rating: 5/5 stars

Halibut on the Moon was among my most anticipated novels for 2019, even before I had read the synopsis. Ever since reading Legend of a Suicide, Aquarium and most recently Caribou Island, my respect for David Vann as an author has grown fast to the point where I will now read anything he publishes.

Halibut on the Moon is Vann’s second novel about his father. Despite never specifically stating so, the parallels (even down to the names) are unmistakable. This makes this novel even more difficult for me to review, as it feels like such a personal piece of art. If you only want the cliff-notes of my opinion, then here they are: I think it’s a masterfully written novel, that is far from “fun” to read, but deserves all the stars for how important it is. It has Vanns signature all over it: beautifully written, dark, bleak and true. It sunk its talons into me and seeped into my soul.

Jim is a recently divorced man, suffering from severe manic depression. His condition has forced him to temporarily live in the care of his older brother in California, whilst waiting out the deepest part depression. “Only two weeks before the meds start working” his psychiatrist has told him. But two more weeks of the hell Jim’s living seems like an insurmountable task. Being swept between the delusional highs and deepest lows of his mind, he is led on the path to the one solution that seems logical to him.

Writing about depression is something too many authors attempt and too little succeed to do well. David Vann is one of the few that does it more than well. Having experienced severe depression myself, reading Vanns work is scarily relatable to my experiences from that period of my life, and I can’t stress enough how impressive that is. Depression is a period of my life that I (and many with me) struggle to put into words in our own minds, let alone convey the experience to others. It’s a bit like explaining to a living person what it feels like to be a ghost. If an author can do that, they can do pretty much anything. The grave contrast of the depression to Jim’s manic phases (which I have luckily never experienced so I can’t speak to the accuracy, but I trust Vann completely) only drive home the chaotic and taunting nature of this disease. Despite not understanding and sometimes even despising his manic actions, I couldn’t help but deeply feel for Jim’s struggles, leaving the ending to feel inevitable, yet deeply tragic.

Halibut on the Moon is a masterful journey through the darkest corners the mind can roam to, yet simultaneously feels like a heartfelt homage from a son trying to understand his father. A novel that resonates empathy and respect, but not glorification of mental illness.

It's not an easy novel to read: it's bleak, and at times feels "empty", and like it's going nowhere, but in the end, so too feels the condition it descibes. This is one that will stay with me for a long time to come…

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