Reviews > Published on March 5th, 2015

Bookshots: 'Aquarium' by David Vann

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review



Who wrote it?

David Vann: prize-winning author whose backlist I am currently purchasing.

If you think you know where this story is headed, you are wrong...

Plot in a Box:

Caitlin’s family consists of just her and her hardworking mother, Sheri. When Sheri’s past comes knocking, it shatters their tightly-knit existence.

Invent a new title for this book:

Still Life with Fishes

Read this if you liked:

The First Bad Man by Miranda July, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and reaching a little further back, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg.

Meet the book’s lead:

Caitlin: only child of Sheri, a single mother struggling to cope with too little money, too much work and the demons of her past.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

If the year were 2010, Abigail Breslin or Taissa Farmiga, but since it’s 2015 and these actors are now all growed up, I’d go for Chloe O’Malley, currently in The Strain.

Setting: would you want to live there?

Vann describes the inhabitants of Seattle’s aquarium with such delicate skill that it is now high on my list of must-sees.

What was your favorite sentence?

My mother, the best person in this world, the most generous, the strongest, but this was her dry season, when she was more like a storm than a person. wind-blown dust, accelerating from somewhere sourceless and vast, and I knew to hide.

The Verdict:

When a writer hits on a really good metaphor for that particular aspect of the human condition they hope to illuminate, the temptation to go into metaphor overdrive must be intense. We’ve all seen it happen: books about life’s journey which are full of endless roads, books about isolation which feature castles with thick walls, books about loss which have the main character spend many hours gazing out to sea. We lose our way in forests. We explore the fickle nature of fate in casinos. We see the world in a new way by turning into animals.

Vann, to his credit, never gives in to that temptation. Yes, Aquarium is about isolation and the setting up of thick glass walls. It’s about the intrusive gaze of others. It’s about sustaining life in what is, when you think about it, an unsustainable environment. He never points any of this out. He lets the metaphor do the work it’s supposed to do: illuminate, but not instruct.

The story goes like this: young Caitlin, sensitive and a little precocious, whiles away the long hours between school and the end of her mother’s shift, by wandering around the city aquarium. There she meets and makes friends with an old man. They talk about the fishes. He offers to take her and her mother on holiday. What seems innocent to Caitlin doesn’t to her mother when she finds out about their talks, but if you think you know where this story is headed, you are wrong and so was I. The old guy is not what he seems. He’s both better and worse than what we expect.

Through the story, the fishes drift. Vann uses their serene strangeness as both highlight and contrast for the peculiarities of his human characters, but he wields the metaphor lightly. These are effects you understand afterwards, in contemplation, not because the writer has grabbed you by the lapels and shouted them in your face. I found parts of Aquarium hard to read, but I can’t look at some things in an aquarium without a shiver. Vann trusts his readers to draw the dots between these sensations all by themselves.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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