Aquarium by David Vann
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on March 3, 2015
my rating: ★★★★.5
Goodreads avg: 3.72 (as of 2019-09-10)
Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives alone with her mother—a docker at the local container port—in subsidized housing next to an airport in Seattle. Each day, while she waits to be picked up after school, Caitlin visits the local aquarium to study the fish. Gazing at the creatures within the watery depths, Caitlin accesses a shimmering universe beyond her own. When she befriends an old man at the tanks one day, who seems as enamored of the fish as she, Caitlin cracks open a dark family secret and propels her once-blissful relationship with her mother toward a precipice of terrifying consequence.
In crystalline, chiseled yet graceful prose, Aquarium takes us into the heart of a brave young girl whose longing for love and capacity for forgiveness transforms the damaged people around her.
Having added this to my TBR about a year ago and not remembering why, I checked this out of the library on a whim since I had some time to kill. I didn’t re-read the synopsis before jumping in and found myself being pulled through a curious story that in turn felt both unbelievably real and not real at all. In the simplest terms possible, this is the story of a girl named Caitlin who lives an unremarkable life with her single working mom. In actuality, nothing about this book is that simple.
I Google the street and see the crime rate at three times the national average, car theft almost six times higher. I think of my mother and the teachers at school letting me walk that route every day, and I’m filled with a rage that will never go away because it comes from some hollow vertigo unfinished. I feel dizzy with fear for my former self, and how can that be? I’m here now. I’m safe. I have a job. I’m thirty-two years old. I live in a better section of town. I should forgive and forget.
The story veers wildly between slice-of-life literary fiction and edge-of-your-seat drama. While I can see how this wouldn’t work for some, I was entranced by the characters and their stories. There is very little I can get into without spoilers, but there are some deeply, deeply horrifying moments squirreled away in here. And some deeply heartwarming ones as well. I really felt like I ran the gamut of emotions while reading this.
Lungfish can slow to one-sixtieth their normal metabolic rate, but this slows time, also. One night becomes sixty nights. This is the price for hiding. Just hold your breath for one minute and find out what a minute becomes.
Worth noting is also the fact that I hadn’t taken notice of the author’s gender and spent the entirety of this book thinking it had been written by a woman. While others have disagreed, I felt this was quite authentically written and was surprised by how carefully done some aspects were. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the main character is in love with her (female) best friend and while there are some scenes that are sexual, they are portrayed in a way that I found quite tasteful and and innocent in nature.
Each thing that happens to us, each and every thing, it leaves some dent, and that dent will always be there. Each of us is a walking wreck.
Overall, I found myself deeply impacted by this book. Parts of it are truly harrowing, but the experience itself was worth it. I was quite impressed by Vann’s writing and really look forward to exploring more of his work.