Aquarium by David Vann
Digital Audiobook narrated by Julia Whelan
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on March 3, 2015
Genres: Bildungsroman, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Young Adult
Length: 266 pages or 6 hours, 4 minutes
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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.
This book is at once extremely well-written, and extremely disturbing. The characters are rounded and troubled and struggling with all the depths of their souls. I deeply disliked listening to this book, but I just had to keep listening because I needed to see if something better came for Caitlin.
I’m not going to tell you if something better came or not. You’ll just have to read this book. Content warnings: sexual descriptions, child abuse (physical and emotional), underage sexual relationships, trauma, elder abuse (physical and mental), homophobia. Even without having triggers from any of these things, this book was unbelievably hard to stomach. Caitlin’s relationship with her mother, in particular, was incredibly difficult to read. There was about 10%-20% in the middle that made me want to stop reading. This is not the kind of content I want to read recreationally. But these stories, no matter how difficult, need to be told. Not every story can be shiny and beautiful.
The way David Vann writes is evocative and detailed. His storytelling – however heartbreaking – is incredibly good. I wish I had started with a different book, because I genuinely hated this one. I didn’t want to hate it, because there were breaths and moments that were beautiful amongst the trauma. Humans are not perfect. Life is not a fairytale. More than any of those things, Aquarium reminded me that I am immensely privileged.
I wish that David Vann had been a little less descriptive in some ways. While I liked the surface aspects of Caitlin and Shalini’s relationship, I really, really didn’t need to read the (abstract) descriptions of their encounters. There’s two definitive types of characters in this book – the immediate family (Caitlin and Sherri), and the outsiders who help the family as much as they can. There’s so much tension and fear between Caitlin and Sherri that while you want them to heal, it’s so heartbreaking and concerning to watch them, it’s difficult. I liked Shalini and Steve and Grandpa better, people on the outside who saw the pain and fracture and tried to help in whatever way they could.
All that said, because of the violence and the anger woven within the plot of this book, I find it’s a very difficult one to recommend. I think I respected it’s existence, but I didn’t like it. I would recommend finding something else written by David Vann and giving that a go, something less intense and disconcerting, I guess? I’m willing to try something else, but this definitely isn’t a book I’ll be re-reading.
Have you come across any books that were really hard to read? I think there are different levels of hard – something like The Hate U Give is important while still being difficult. Tell me about the ones you’ve experienced in the comments!