BookBrowse Reviews Aquarium by David Vann

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by David Vann

Aquarium by David Vann X
Aquarium by David Vann
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 272 pages
    Jan 2016, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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About this Book



Relentless and heartbreaking, primal and redemptive, Aquarium takes us into the heart of a brave young girl.

Set in 1994 when Caitlin is twelve years old, but told from her perspective twenty years later, Aquarium is seamless emotional perfection and devastation that quietly demands much from its reader - and delivers so much more.

We are introduced to Caitlin at the Seattle Aquarium, where she waits for her mother Sheri, who works as a docker at a container port, to pick her up at the end of the school day. She waits for her at the aquarium every day, and then they go home to an isolated apartment complex next to Boeing Field. "We were in the flight path of all the test planes that might or might not work," Caitlin says. The apartment offers so little that the aquarium seems more like her true home. It's there, among striated frogfish, red handfish, and ghost pipefish that she strikes up a friendship with an old man that turns out to have grave consequences for her small family, especially weary, edgy Sheri.

Without spoiling the shattering revelation that follows - which plunges Caitlin and the reader into an emotional hell - it's safe to say that maestro David Vann is a human scrub brush, getting deep into the corners and crevices of human emotion. He not only thoroughly explores the relationship between Caitlin, Sheri and the old man, but also Caitlin's growing love for her classmate, Shalini.

Vann dispenses with quotation marks around dialogue between his characters, and it works in Aquarium, as they feel like they'd just get in the way. These conversations feel more intimate without them, the words all pressed together, and this style lends an even greater sense of dramatic urgency to the story. This is especially true in the fights between Caitlin and her mother. Sheri feels like another literary Mommie Dearest, except that while Joan Crawford was continually nasty, Sheri's particular, frightful nastiness gradually builds up to a moment when it all explodes. As 32-year-old Caitlin recalls these horrifying memories, the reader is able to understand their context, which forces internal debate as to whether Caitlin should have had to endure what she did.

This debate continues throughout the entire novel. The raw, long-buried emotions that Vann holds up to the light of the printed page for us to see, are just as much about ourselves, the readers, as they are about Caitlin. On every page, he offers a poetic observation, such as this one about parents: "Anything is possible with a parent. Parents are gods. They make us and they destroy us. They warp the world and remake it in their own shape, and that's the world we know forever after. It's the only world. We can't see what it might have looked like otherwise." Thoughts about our own lives abound in the face of such observations. There's a lot here to give stunned pause.

In its gentler moments, Aquarium focuses on descriptions of the fish Caitlin and the old man stare at and talk about together. The aquarium is a safer place for Caitlin, and it's always a relief to get back to it, and it is an opportunity to settle after experiencing such emotional upheaval (though it changes drastically after the twist.) Vann is aware and appreciative of his readers, and by allowing them moments to breathe, he makes his drama much more potent. In turn, the reader has the space to think more about it. Aquarium is utterly unforgettable.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

This review was originally published in April 2015, and has been updated for the January 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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