Friday, March 13, 2015

Book Review: "Aquarium" by David Vann

Here's a conundrum: how do you review a book that is dazzlingly beautiful but otherwise relentlessly brutal? Do you focus on how it's written or how it makes you feel? David Vann's Aquarium is a book that makes me ponder those questions. Vann's writing is truly masterful, but this is a book that hits you with a wallop.

Twelve-year-old Caitlin is growing up in Seattle, being raised by a single mother who works at a local container port—a menial, laborious job that barely helps them make ends meet. Because her mother can't afford child care, and can't pick Caitlin up directly after school, Caitlin spends each afternoon at the aquarium, which is no punishment for her, since she loves fish more than anything.

"The only thing that kept me moving along that street each afternoon was the blue at the end, the sea visible because we were on a hill. That blue promised the aquarium. A gauntlet leading to a sanctuary. I could have stayed in an after-school program, but it was my choice to visit the fish. They were emissaries sent from a larger world. They were the same as possibility, a kind of promise."

Caitlin studies the fish each day, and reflects on their place in the world at large. One day, she meets an old man who seems as enamored of the fish as she is. He strikes up conversations with her and is amazed at her knowledge of these denizens of the deep. They begin to meet at the aquarium each afternoon. As Caitlin struggles with what is going on in her life—her mother coming under scrutiny for bringing her to work at night when she does overtime, Caitlin's feelings for her best friend Shalini—the old man proves to be her salvation. Although Caitlin wants to keep him a secret from her mother because she is worried how she'll react, the man insists Caitlin introduce him to her mother.

But little does Caitlin know what fissures this man will open in her life, in her relationship with her mother, and her mother's psyche in general. For the first time in her life, Caitlin sees how brutal and painful life can be, how it can derail you from all you want and all you hope for. She finds herself living in fear of losing all that she loves, and all that she wants.

Aquarium is truly a sucker punch to the gut. It is vivid in its depiction of how hurtful and cruel a person who feels they are wronged can be, and how easily they can injure another person physically and emotionally. It's a book about how the sins of adults are often visited on their children, and how easy it can be to take your own frustration and sadness out on those who are more vulnerable. But as brutal as it is, there is still a glimmer of hope deep inside.

"The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable."

I found this book tremendously difficult to read and a bit disturbing. The transformation Caitlin's mother undergoes, while realistic, is so drastic and shocking it's nearly over-the-top, but you can understand how a woman so beat down by life could have so much anger inside her. But in trying to illustrate this point, I felt that Vann might have taken it a little too far, because it became difficult to sympathize with her, and those who watched her actions occur.

I'd never read anything Vann has written before, but I was truly amazed at the depth of his talent. And it is that talent, that storytelling ability, that kept me reading even as my heart hurt for Caitlin. This isn't necessarily a book you'll enjoy, but it is one which will leave your mind reeling.

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