Caitlin is a twelve-year-old leaving with her mother in subsidised housing next to the Seattle airport. Every day after school she visits the local aquarium where she spends her time studying the fish. She dreams of becoming an ichthyologist when she grows up. One day she meets and befriends an old man by one of the fish tanks. This new friendship leads Caitlin to a dark family secret and causes her once blissful relationship with her mother to fracture.
I have great respect for David Vann as a writer; while I have only read Dirt previously, I have found his ability to write family dysfunction mesmerising. Dirt was a very uncomfortable read and when Goat Mountain was released in 2013 I was not emotionally prepared to tackle another Vann novel. Goat Mountain still sits on my shelf waiting for me but I could not resist picking up Aquarium and reading it.
David Vann frequently writes about the domestic life, exploring the way family members react to each other and often lead to arguments. Within Aquarium, Vann looks at how destructive secrets can be and how the suffering of a parent can greatly affect their children. Parents often have this idea that they need to protect their children from the horrors of the world, which is fair enough. However, what happens when a family secret comes out? In Aquarium, Caitlin’s mother is unable to handle the situation leaving her to try and navigate this big revolution alone.
Aquarium is a coming of age story of a twelve year old being thrust into adulthood and trying to navigate the world alone. Without the family drama, Caitlin has enough to worry about with the changes in hormones and her body. However do not confuse this with a young adult novel; David Vann tackles some dark themes (although this is more accessible than Dirt) and Caitlin is reflecting on the situation later in her life. This allows for a nice blend of maturity and naiveté to come through in the writing.
While this was not as dark as I expected, I think Aquarium is a great introduction to David Vann. I still need to read Goat Mountain, Caribou Island and Legend of a Suicide before I can give a more informed opinion but I recommend Aquarium if you want to try Vann out. If I compare this novel to Dirt, it is a light read about the family life but, in reality, it is a dark grim bildungsroman that deals with abuse and sexuality. Emotionally prepare yourself when going into a book like Aquarium; it is worth the journey.