Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2015

Aquarium, by David Vann

AquariumIn his childhood, The Offspring had a keen interest in tropical fish: at one stage he took over an entire room with five tanks and it cost a small fortune in power bills to heat them.  He belonged to some club somewhere in Melbourne’s remote outskirts, requiring a devoted mother to drive for an hour after a rushed early dinner to take him to midweek evening meetings.  It was a salutary experience for said mother to observe said Offspring wholly absorbed for over an hour in a slide show explaining the technical details of breeding this or that species; said mother was bored witless.

I venture this by way of a confession: I did skip some of the descriptions of fish in David Vann’s new novel, Aquarium.  This is not to say that other readers might not find them fascinating, but for some it may be reassuring to know that it is perfectly possible to read this absorbing novel even if you have no interest whatsoever in ichthyology.

The fish have symbolic purpose, of course.  Caged in their glass prison, they are safe from predators, and they are stratified just as American society is, each keeping to their own layer as top, middle or bottom dwellers.  Some are beautiful and powerful, others are ordinary.  12-year-old Caitlin Thompson recognises the place of each in the watery world, just as she recognises her own in her community.   Her mother is one of the working poor in contemporary Seattle, and they live a life of privation and want, assuaged only by the hope that Caitlin, who is clever, will do well at school and have a better future than her mother.

Most readers know that David Vann writes novels that are emotionally demanding.  I admired the courage that lay behind the semi-autobiographical Legend of a Suicide but I didn’t like Dirt much at all and skipped his subsequent efforts until Aquarium came along.  In this one Vann takes on the narrative voice of a female child and focuses on her perspective and that of her mother Sheri.  The descriptions of their life together show a courageous pair, the child sturdily coping with long hours alone while her mother works, and her low expectations.  Their bond is close, and the mother, although a rough diamond, puts the child’s interests first.

It is that loving though unsentimental persona that makes the transformation of the mother so shocking.  An encounter with a man at the aquarium is the trigger for old memories to resurface, and the pain and rage of revisiting a traumatic period of her life makes Sheri impose the same experiences on the child.  It is horrific.  (Though, no, it’s not what you’re thinking).

So no, you are not going to ‘enjoy’ this book, and if you are like me, you will feel profound doubt about even the  hesitant resolution with which Vann concludes.  And yet it is a compassionate story, with glimpses of a forgiving Caitlin looking back on events from her thirties (so we know that she survives).   It shows the extraordinary lengths to which a single mother will go to transcend mothering as she knew it. The daily grind at the docks; the isolation in a dingy apartment; the absence of friends and entertainments; the distrust of any man who might disturb a hard-won equilibrium of self-denial; the painstaking arrangements for Caitlin’s safety when Sheri has shift work – all these aspects of the novel, together with the treasured season pass for the aquarium –  show this woman as almost heroic in her efforts to create a near-normal life for her child. The novel also shows that what makes Sheri lose control of her tightly repressed demons is the complete lack of support for her as a person.

I have never been able to understand how it is that the richest country in the world treats some of its own people so badly, and this novel is another example that shows that you either survive on your own, or you don’t.

Author: David Vann
Title: Aquarium
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182708
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: Aquarium


  1. Another superb review, you really are a reader and person after my own heart. Thank you so much. I’m on the look out for David Vann (new name to me) now.


  2. Great commentary on this book Lisa.

    I do believe that there are good and great books that we really do not “enjoy”.

    This may be way off, but your allusion to very detailed descriptions of fish reminds me of the extremely detailed descriptions of lots of things in Moby Dick.


    • *snap!* Yes I skipped them in Moby Dick too!
      I think you are right about great books in that way: I mean, who could ‘enjoy’ The Grapes of Wrath? It’s one of the most sad books I’ve ever read, yet also one of the most memorable and influential ever.


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