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AQUARIUM by David Vann is a gem of a novel --- not because it’s pretty, sweet or sparkly but because it’s starkly beautiful, tough and of great value. It tells, in sparse but lovely prose, the story of 12-year-old Caitlin who lives in Seattle with her hardworking mother, Sheri, and spends countless hours alone at the aquarium waiting for Sheri to get done with work. The two are alone in the world, trapped by circumstance, until three new people come into their lives and change everything.

First, Caitlin meets Shalini, who has been in the U.S. for only six months. The two bond over a silly school project, but soon their friendship grows into a powerful and sensual attraction. Next, Sheri starts dating a man named Steve, who shows an unexpected kindness to both her and Caitlin. Finally, and most importantly, Caitlin befriends an elderly man at the aquarium who shares her interest in fish and wants to know her better. Upon learning of Caitlin's friendship with the man at the aquarium, Sheri becomes understandably terrified. But when she arrives on the scene, with the police, she discovers it is her long-estranged father, Bob. Sheri wants nothing to do with him and does her best to keep Caitlin away from him as well.

"The tension builds slowly and steadily as all the characters move toward an unforgettable confrontation... Powerful is an understatement; AQUARIUM is an amazing book worth reading and re-reading."

Sheri shares with Caitlin the dark secrets of her adolescence, caring for her slowly dying mother after her father abandoned them. She had to drop out of high school to tend to her mother, and the two of them were alone with no money or support. The struggles Sheri went through were terrible and heartbreaking, but the way that she relates them to Caitlin is harrowing, abusive and difficult to read. Sheri's hatred for her father, held in for so many years, threatens to destroy the fragile life she has built with her daughter and the new life she is trying to create with Steve. Sheri and her father, for Caitlin's sake, come to an uneasy agreement to live together. But just hours into the move, Sheri's discovery of Shalini and Caitlin together sends her into a violent but seemingly inevitable rage.

The color images of fish scattered throughout bring readers even closer to the lonely and cold but vivid and mesmerizing world that fascinates Caitlin and that she later shares with Bob. Caitlin's life previous to her grandfather's arrival was contained and limited, like the lives of the aquatic aquarium creatures. Bob's appearance cracks open the metaphorical enclosures, and Caitlin finds herself in the ocean's depths, a murky, vast and dangerous place to be. Forgiveness is the key to security and peace, but it is hard won in AQUARIUM and never complete.

This is novel of contrasts: a moving tenderness is paired with severe cruelty. Often the same characters are capable of both extremes. The book is written with an intelligent and thoughtful realism, and Vann, as Caitlin, is a powerful storyteller. The tension builds slowly and steadily as all the characters move toward an unforgettable confrontation and as Caitlin's insights and understanding about love, loneliness, revenge and forgiveness grow ever sharper and more mature. Powerful is an understatement; AQUARIUM is an amazing book worth reading and re-reading. 

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 10, 2015

by David Vann

  • Publication Date: January 12, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802124798
  • ISBN-13: 9780802124791