BookBrowse Reviews Aquarium by David Vann

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


by David Vann

Aquarium by David Vann X
Aquarium by David Vann
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 272 pages
    Jan 2016, 272 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
Buy This Book

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.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Courting Mr. Lincoln
    Courting Mr. Lincoln
    by Louis Bayard
    19 out of 21 of our First Impression Reviewers rated Louis Bayard's latest novel, Courting Mr. ...
  • Book Jacket
    by Kate Atkinson
    Over her two-decade-plus career, Kate Atkinson has reinvented herself as a writer several times by ...
  • Book Jacket: Exhalation
    by Ted Chiang
    Exhalation is an assemblage of nine short stories and novellas written by Ted Chiang, a computer ...
  • Book Jacket: Disappearing Earth
    Disappearing Earth
    by Julia Phillips
    On the remote peninsula of Kamchatka—tucked away on the far eastern corner of Russia and ...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Guest Book
    by Sarah Blake

    "An American epic in the truest sense…"
    Entertainment Weekly
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Women Rowing North
    by Mary Pipher

    The instant New York Times bestseller from the author of Reviving Ophelia.
    Reader Reviews

Book Club
Book Jacket
Her Kind of Case
by Jeanne Winer

A highly-recommended emotion-filled legal drama with three starred reviews!

About the book
Join the discussion!
Win this book!
Win Miracle Creek

My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie...

A thrilling debut novel for fans of Liane Moriarty and Celeste Ng.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

I I T S Form O F

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.