Hard to read but compelling – in Aquarium David Vann tells the coming of age story of Caitlin, a sensitive and lonely twelve-year-old who lives in near poverty with her mother, a construction worker, in Seattle. The story seems innocuous at first as Vann describes Caitlin’s after school visits to the Seattle Aquarium, and laces the pages with beautiful pictures of the fish Caitlin has befriended. Throughout the story, Vann offers philosophical notes attached to this underwater world, and creates analogies to human action.
Caitlin befriends an elderly man who shares her love of fish, and they meet every day until he asks to meet her mother. When his true identity is revealed, the plot turns to darkness and cruelty. As much as Caitlin’s mother struggles in life – laboring at a job she hates, barely making enough money to pay the rent, angry at the world for her misery – she has shielded Caitlin from her past and the seething rage she keeps hidden. But when this man reenters her life, her fury is released – along with scenes of horrible abuse and shocking inhumanity. These descriptions are difficult to read.
Caitlin cautiously navigates around her mother’s anger, and even manipulates her into changes for the better. At the same time, Caitlin is awakening to her own sexuality, and tells some of the story in flashback – reassuring the reader that she does survive.
Alaskan David Vann is a new author for me, and I requested this book from the library after reading a thoughtful and intriguing review from a fellow reviewer. In researching some of Vann’s other books, I found references to more dark and dreary lives, and a penchant for family violence. Aquarium, with its psychological heaviness, is described as “far more civilized” than his other work. Perhaps with a young pre-teen protagonist, he has toned the wretchedness down a little – but not much. Aquarium is a powerful and heart-wrenching story, but not for everyone.