Reviews of Aquarium

A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

Optioned for film by Rhodri Thomas, producer of Ang Lee’s upcoming film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

A March 2015 Indie Next Great Read“The world of the aquarium becomes a microcosm of a young girl’s longings – some she can name, some she cannot — as her splintered family makes jagged efforts to reform itself. How kinship is expressed, both in the fish world and within 12-year-old Caitlin’s difficult family, is at the heart of Vann’s piercing and ultimately redemptive novel — one that remains vivid long after the last page.” —Sheryl Cotleur, Copperfield’s Books, Sebastopol, CA

An Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2015: The award-winning David Vann has written an elegant and fierce novel about love, betrayal, the limits of forgiveness, and “unconscious child-joy that [can] explode like the sun.” Every day after school, Caitlin walks to the Seattle Aquarium where she finds refuge in the fish and waits for her single mother to finish her job and take her home. At the aquarium, an old man who loves fish as much as Caitlin, befriends her, cracking open a family secret that will change her life forever. She begins to fight with her mother, all-out confrontations that are raw, rapt and unforgettable; falls into deep young love with another twelve year old; and the joyful dream of having a bigger family threatens all that she’s known. Aquarium is beautifully and patiently written, and will make you ache with remembrance and empathy. – Al Woodworth

“The author has metamorphosed himself into a 12-year-old girl with startlingly brilliant results.Aquarium is as rich as good poetry and as addictive as a first-class detective novel.”–The Spectator (UK)

“Cinematic… AQUARIUM is a genuine departure for Vann, an authentically new direction. …Its delicate, coming-of-age sensuality and bright saltwater menagerie.”Lydia Millet, The New York Times Book Review

The Most Eagerly Awaited Fiction of 2015, The Observer

US Tour March 2015

Library Journal starred review, December 2014:  A 12-year-old’s fragile world, mesmerizing innocence, and emerging adolescence are the heart of this alluring novel from Vann (Goat Mountain), which opens in 1994. ­Caitlin and her single mother, Sheri, live on the margins of Seattle’s docks, where Sheri puts in long, grueling days while Caitlin spends after-school hours at the aquarium, reveling in fish facts. Mother and daughter get by in their own loving way until Caitlin has a not-so-coincidental encounter with an old man at the aquarium. Their shared passion for the fish leads to a tender friendship that rips open Sheri’s barely contained rage over her stolen childhood. VERDICT Caitlin juggles protective love for her mother with her irresistible need to seek out and embrace her roots. Her fresh voice rings true, whether she’s standing up to her mother or exploring her deepening friendship with her classmate, Shalini. Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list. [See Prepub Alert, 9/29/14.]—Beth Andersen, formerly with Ann ­Arbor Dist. Lib., MI

Kirkus starred review, January 2015:  “Vann, whose remarkable novels evoke worlds where violence and revenge seem the inevitable outcome of human relationships, offers here a kind of modern fairy tale, one laced with treachery and trials and the greatest demon of all to battle, the past.It’s the early 1990s, and 12-year-old Caitlin splits her days between the dullness of school and the magic of the Seattle Aquarium. Caitlin spends every afternoon there, using it as de facto child care, until her mother, Sheri, returns from her job at the docks. The aquarium is peaceful and contains possibilities; it’s a place where her mother’s anger has no power. She meets an old man there and the two walk from one exhibit to the next, each day studying a fish, considering its place in the world, their places in the world, building a gentle friendship (the novel is filled with photographs of these fish). When Sheri finds out about their relationship, she calls the police to ambush a pedophile but discovers something she deems far worse—her own estranged father, Caitlin’s grandfather. His abandonment of his family 19 years earlier transformed Sheri from an innocent girl to a woman twisted by rage. He left his wife dying of cancer, penniless in a shack with 14-year-old Sheri as sole caretaker. In a harrowing series of scenes, Sheri forces Caitlin to play make-believe; Sheri pretends to be her own dying mother while Caitlin drags her shit-smeared body around the apartment as they re-enact Sheri’s early life. Unlike Vann’s other novels, which exist in a closed system of violence and despair, this story offers redemption. Like all good heroines who make their ways out of the woods, Caitlin is clever and brave and convinces Sheri that the old man will sacrifice anything for forgiveness, to conquer the spell of the past. Vann’s novels are striking, uncompromising portraits of American life; here is another exceptional example.”

Booklist Starred Review, February 15, 2015: “In Goat Mountain (2013), internationally acclaimed Vann told the story of an 11-year-old boy’s harrowing experiences. Here, Vann convincingly narrates in the voice of a 12-year-old girl. Although she hasn’t lost any loved ones, Caitlin Thompson nonetheless feels abject absence and longing as the only child of single mother Sheri, a laborer who can’t afford after-school care for her daughter. Caitlin has no other adults in her life. There are no grandparents, aunts, cousins, adult friends, not even a day-care provider. She fills her after-school hours communing with the aquatic inmates of the Seattle Aquarium. Her best friend Shalini’s lively Indian family and exotic Tupperware lunches stand in sharp contrast to Caitlin’s always-exhausted mother and daily tater-tot school lunches. To say hers is a bleak existence and that she is starved for adult attention is an understatement. When an elderly man engages her in conversation at the aquarium, Caitlin is cautious at first. But since he is there every day and kindly, they develop a friendship, which leads to unforeseen conflict. By pulling no punches in this explicit exploration of family, forgiveness, duty, acceptance, parent-child relationships, and what constitutes abuse, Vann has outdone himself.”— Donna Chavez

“Vann’s (Legend of a Suicide) elegantly written, emotionally intense novel juxtaposes the contained world of undersea creatures with the life of a family forced beyond its self-protective isolation. In 1994, 12-year-old Caitlin Thompson and her sole parent, Sheri, live in Seattle, where Sheri works at the docks. After school closes each day, Caitlin waits for her mother at the Seattle Aquarium, studying the bizarre fish she loves. When she meets an elderly man there, a friendship develops. Suspicious, Sheri engineers an encounter with the man, only to realize that he is her father; when Sheri was 14, he left her alone to care for her dying mother. Caitlin embraces the warmer, less-constricted life her grandfather offers, but Sheri refuses to forgive, going to monstrous lengths to show her daughter the humiliations she suffered after her father’s abandonment. The conflict between mother and daughter deepens as Caitlin forms another tender new bond, this one with her schoolmate Shalini. Though Sheri’s toxic blame of her father feels improbably extreme at times, it’s more than made up for by Caitlin’s emotional depth and nimble imagination. Through her wise and dreamy vision, Vann crafts a moving exploration of the boundaries we draw around ourselves to stay safe and unchanged.”  Publishers Weekly

Chicago Tribune: “”A beautiful book.” This coded and cliched phrase, usually associated with a novel, generally speaks to an elegant use of language, a finely chiseled work of imagination. “Aquarium” by David Vann may be elegantly written and fiercely imagined, but it is also a beautiful book in a different way. Physically, this book is so gorgeous it enhanced my reading experience. I found myself turning pages slowly, then running my hand across each smooth page. The photographs throughout the text, along with the turquoise capital letters that begin each chapter and mark the author’s name and book title on every creamy, thick page, reminded me that no electronic reader could provide this tactile and visual experience. From the first sentence — “It was a fish so ugly it didn’t seem to be a fish at all” — 12-year-old narrator Caitlin brings readers into her alternative universe of the Seattle Aquarium, where she spends time after school until her mother, a dockworker, ends her shift and brings her back to the rooms they share. The ugly fish, which resembled a cold, mossy, overgrown rock, was a male “three spot frog fish,” which keeps and protects its mate’s eggs. Embedded throughout the novel are vivid photos of sea creatures, and the gifted Vann integrates them into his narrative of this girl who dreams of being an ichthyologist in Australia or Indonesia or on the Red Sea and spending her days in warm water. “The problem with the aquarium,” Caitlin muses, “was that we couldn’t join them.” “Aquarium” is suspenseful and difficult to describe without revealing details that will undermine revelations that give this book some heft, elevating it beyond the tale of a sensitive girl and her frustrated, angry mother struggling to make ends meet. “Welcome to the adult world, coming soon,” says Sheri, Caitlin’s mother. “I work so I can work more. I try not to want anything so maybe I’ll get something. I starve so I can be less and more. I try to be free so I can be alone.” Caitlin does not want to be alone; she longs for love and a sense of connection in a cruel world.  Like the ugly fish that opens the novel, the world is an ugly place; but by the end of “Aquarium,” it is — like the physical book itself — a beautiful one. The aquarium makes Caitlin’s life bearable, and she derives strength from imagining a universe where healing powers of forgiveness and empathy prevail. At times, this is a painful novel, but its beauty propels it toward redemption.”  Elizabeth Taylor is the Tribune’s literary editor at large

“A triumph.”–Daily Mail (UK)

“A stirring tale that isn’t as simple as it first appears”–Esquire UK

“This novel is arguably Vann’s brightest…Caitlin’s tale with its many surface ripples proves immersive, the narrative propelling us along like a forceful current… Once again, and in contrast to many of his peers, Vann’s trademark limpid prose enables us to observe far more of what lies beneath.” —Weekend Australian

“The motions of fish in a tank, endlessly confronted by the limits of their confinement, provided the Alaskan-born novelist David Vann with the ideal metaphor for his first short story “Ichthyology”. The story, partially inspired by events in Vann’s life, was published by Atlantic Monthly in 2008 and collected in his much-lauded 2009 debut Legend of a Suicide. At one point it describes “yellow-and-black angelfish … all glitz and glamour” swimming back and forth above a cluster of hungry bottom-feeders and a dozy iridescent shark which has been savaged by two “slick and merciless” silver dollars.  “Everything in human life was to be found in that tank,” says the young narrator, Roy, registering the parallels between the grim aquatic theatre he observes with ghoulish fascination and the destructive family drama unfolding around him. Hounded by regret and financial difficulty – those piranha-like silver dollars – Roy’s father sells his dental practice to take up commercial fishing. He embarks on a period of frantic ocean-crossing, a move that signifies “he had already entered the last beautiful, desperate, far-ranging circlings of his life”. Not long after, just as Vann’s own father had done, he shoots himself in the head.  In Aquarium, Vann’s fifth novel, the metaphor returns. For 12-year-old Caitlin Thompson, fish tanks represent order and stability – a hierarchical world far preferable to life in “the ocean, where any predator might come along at any time”. The novel opens at the Seattle Aquarium, where Caitlin meets a strange old man – “as armoured as a sea horse and as ugly” – who tells her he loves her. They examine the warm-water species together – ocellated waspfish, leafy seadragon, hairy blenny – before moving on to their freshwater cousins: cod, trout, loaches. “They’re just like us,” the old man says, “nothing exotic. Some sticks and rocks, cold, bundled up in a group, shivering. We’re looking at the good people of Seattle here.”  It is as though Roy has grown up to be wise, sorrowful and in search of a protege. “You should become an ichthyologist,” he urges. “It’s what you are.” When Caitlin’s mother, Sheri, catches wind of her daughter’s new friend, she calls the police, terrified to think what he might be. It’s no great spoiler to reveal that he is not, in fact, a pervert, but Sheri’s father, Bob Thompson, a man who abandoned his daughter when she was a teenager, leaving her to nurse her terminally ill mother and to a life of poverty and hardship.  Up to this point, Aquarium reads like a fairytale: a blue-collar parable whose subaquatic imagery is stretched to the limit (fish are “emissaries from another world … a kind of promise”). But as in Vann’s previous novels Goat Mountain and Caribou Island, the sudden encroachment of violence causes a split in the narrative, the creation of a “before” and “after” that moves it into darker territory. The grim act at the heart of “Sukkwan Island”, the novella that makes up the bulk of Legend of a Suicide, is so shocking it imbues the Robinson Crusoe-like adventures that follow with a tooth-grinding existential force. The same is true of Aquarium, though the shift from a terse, plain writing style in Vann’s early work to the more psychological and descriptive mode offered here softens the blow.  “I’m going to break you,” Sheri hisses at her daughter, “then we’ll find out what you are.” She refuses to cook, wash or even get out of bed to use the toilet, insisting that Caitlin deal with the mess as punishment for her part in her grandfather’s return. Sheri has become “a fury fallen from the sky, no less elemental than that”. The abuse she doles out tests the reader’s credulity. These are acts that can only be survived by her daughter’s compassion; her child’s desperate need to hold things together.  On a number of occasions the narrative slips into the present. Caitlin doesn’t reveal much, only that she is 32, living “in a better section of town”, revisiting events which led her to “the limits of … forgiveness”. She looks back on her life as a child looks into a tank, hoping to making sense of the world inside – a theme Vann develops beautifully, creating a mysterious realm of the wintry American city, inhabited by “deep-sea dwellers”, people who are just as easily defined by their nature and environment as any fish: creatures with “the chance to choose a few variations” but who can never stray “far from the pattern””.–Philip Maughan, The Guardian (UK)

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