Aquarium by David Vann
(Text Publishing $29.99)
Review by Sam Smith
Twelve-year-old Caitlin and her single mother Sheri live together in their small Seattle apartment. It is just the two of them, and Sheri seems determined to keep it that way. They live a difficult, uncomfortable life with Sheri working long hours on the docks in a job she detests, taking late-night shifts when she can to get ahead. The alarm wakes them in the cold, dark mornings, Sheri drops Caitlin at school where she’s greeted in the empty corridors by the school caretaker, hours before anyone else arrives. After school, Caitlin walks alone for almost an hour to the Seattle Aquarium where she immerses herself in what she feels is the much safer world of tropical fish.
In the darkened passages of the aquarium, Caitlin is enveloped in the fear of her own vulnerability should anything ever happen to her mother. She doesn’t know any other relatives and Sheri refuses to talk about the subject of family.
‘Welcome to the adult world, coming soon,’ Sheri tells Caitlin. ‘I work so I can work more. I try not to want anything so maybe I’ll get something.
‘I starve so I can be less and more. I try to be free so I can be alone.’
But Caitlin is terrified of being alone, and life changes when Caitlin meets a friendly old man at the aquarium who keeps her company during her lonely afternoons and shares her love of the underwater world.
This is the set up to David Vann’s novel, Aquarium: the deepest yearning of young narrator Caitlin to have family, pitted against Sheri’s determination to go it alone.
Aquarium is David Vann’s fifth novel, and it shares the themes of family, betrayal and the primal unleashing of anger that arise in his earlier work. However, this latest work represents a significant shift from the his hallmark macabre fiction, by adding forgiveness and redemption to its theme.
The novel contemplates that forgiveness might be possible, however challenging or remote: ‘Maybe this is as near as we can come to forgiveness. Not the past wiped away, nothing undone, but some willingness in the present, some recognition and embrace and slowing down.’
Fairytales are woven into this novel, both in the idea that happy endings might be possible, and in the realisation of parents that their children will never see their younger lives – those before having kids – as anything more than a distant story, as remote as a fairytale. Sheri’s appreciates it is every child’s right to be selfish, and she rages at the selfishness she was deprived of in her youth.
The small cast of characters in Aquarium is expertly drawn and their ethical and moral dilemmas will haunt you beyond the page. The story is told convincingly through the eyes of a precocious child, though the reader is thrust just as intensely into the world of the damaged characters that surround her, as they suffer through their searing regrets, their sense of injustice, their longing to either retain or release the past. This is a novel that leaves you with the looming question about whether you need to believe in fairytales to free yourself of the past.