The Fiction Fox
Gush: Aquarium - David Vann
Updated: Oct 9, 2018
Genre: Literary Fiction Published: Atlantic Monthly Press, March 2015 My rating: 5/5 stars
This review contains spoilers later on
“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.”
Keeping to the theme here: Aquarium is somewhat like an anglerfish; it draws you in with the lightness of an innocent friendship between a young girl and an elderly man, who bond over their shared love for the local aquarium. Then it reveals its raw and harrowing true form and rips your heart to shreds where you least expected it.
Seriously: I was not prepared for what was coming my way. This was probably one of the books of this year that hit me the hardest, partially for that reason. And despite how uncomfortable it made me at times, despite its wrenching of my heart it: I adored it. The story is told from the perspective of adult Caitlyn, who looks back on her own memories from when she was twelve years old, so essentially the story is told from a child’s perspective. Don’t let this fool you though: this is not middlegrade. I’d say this could well be read by a mature YA-reader, but I’d keep my hypothetical twelve-year-old away from this book, as there are very adult themes throughout! Just like that anglerfish, there are some monsters in disguise lurking in this novel, and it’s not the one you might expect based on the synopsis.
So far my non-spoiler part: this novel is brilliant. The language is beautiful, the characters incredibly interesting and the story took me completely by surprise. If you want to read it, please, don’t read any further and go into this book blind. You can thank me later.
Into the spoilertank, we dive!
Characters So… I lied earlier. There are no monsters in this book, just extremely damaged people. I’ve heard many people call mum a monster, and I’d forgive you for thinking so. Yet I personally don’t think they get more humanly flawed that this. There isn’t a single character in this book that I didn’t hate at one point, and love at another. I could go into detail on every single on of them, because even the minor characters have a developed internal conflict and arc. Take Steve, who is basically a bit of a passive bystander in everything, seemingly just here to have an uncomplicated relationship/sexlife with Sheri. Yet gradually, he learns to stand up against Sheri, for both her own sake, as well as his and Caitlyn’s. He becomes the actual partner she desperately needs, but doesn’t deserve based on her behavior. Or grandpa, who has the most pure heart and just wants the forgiveness of his daughter and granddaughter for his previous mistakes. Yet in the end, he is still lacks the backbone to face his problems head on. Instead he rolls over and runs away, just like back then.
Then there is Caitlyn. My favorite part about her is the way she was written, which ties perfectly into David Vanns talent as an author. Not only is his prose beautiful and his story extremely well crafted; he also pulls of an extremely difficult point of view perfectly. The story is told from the p.o.v. of adult Caitlyn, recalling memories from 12-year-old Caitlyn. Many authors have done this before (perhaps the most well-known example among my readers: Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane), yet none of them did it better than Vann. It’s clear that 12-year-old Caitlyn doesn’t understand some of the nuances of what is happening; she sometimes simplifies thing like a child would do. Her responses to her mother’s behavior are that of a child, who cannot understand the full impact of what is happening here, and simply accepts the status quo. Yet all of the characters are written with the depth, compassion and complexity that only an adult looking at the situation would grasp. Then there is the relationship between Sheri and Caitlyn, which is the part where my heart was ripped to shreds by the aforementioned anglerfish. Sheri is a damaged woman, desperately trying to stay afloat, whilst being weighted down with the trauma of her past, of which her daughter is a constant reminder. Gradually we see her tipping over the edge into a state of rage and possibly temporary insanity. It’s horrible and inexcusable, yet somehow understandable. And it absolutely terrified me… As someone who has been in a situation where they had to take care of a dying parent at a very young age, I can see the trauma that can bring with it. My mum was the sweetest person in the world and did NOT treat me the way Sheri’s mother does, but the guilt, the grief and feeling of inadequacy are very real to most people in this situation. I’ll admit I have had moments where I wished for just a second that someone around me would have experienced the same, so they would understand me. So I would feel less alone. I DON’T agree with anything Sheri does: it’s without a doubt the wrong way to react and the worst way to treat a child, yet her motivation is extremely realistic and true.
So… what’s with the fish… I’ve heard many people ask this questions: what is the significance of the aquarium and the fish? Are they a metaphor, or does David Vann just really like fish? The way I interpreted them, they are a metaphor, and a beautiful one at that. The key is in one of the dinner-scenes, where Caitlyn, her mother and mother’s boyfriend Steve are discussing their favorite fish. Mother doesn’t want to answer the question, and deflects saying she doesn’t have one: “adults don’t have time to think about things like that”. When pushed by Caitlyn and Steve, she finally reveals a quite endearing story about her own childhood. During the worst times at home, young Sheri would find comfort in going to her neighbors pond and watching the single koi fish that made its home there. She loved how the rain would come down on the surface, unable to touch the creature floating just below it. She would come up from time to time, but could always float back down into her safe bubble, away from everything. Caitlyn, at the aquarium, unknowingly mentions a similar sentiment about the aquarium being a microcosm, safe away from everything. She however, also acknowledges the predatory fish and ugly aspects of life in the tanks. I think this is the significance of the aquarium: it symbolizes a protected, safe childhood. One that neither Sheri, nor Caitlyn had, but both longed for in a way. They both yearn for their own safe family-bubbles to protect them from those raindrops. Yet in both of their cases, the actual danger was inside their safe space all along. David Vann; I tip my head to you for this honest character portrayal, horrible and confrontational and all. It’s a rare experience and the main reason I think this book will go down as an all time favorite for me.
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