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Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives alone with her mother—a docker at the local container port—in subsidized housing next to an airport in Seattle. Each day, while she waits to be picked up after school, Caitlin visits the local aquarium to study the fish. Gazing at the creatures within the watery depths, Caitlin accesses a shimmering universe beyond her own. When she befriends an old man at the tanks one day, who seems as enamored of the fish as she, Caitlin cracks open a dark family secret and propels her once-blissful relationship with her mother toward a precipice of terrifying consequence.

In crystalline, chiseled yet graceful prose, Aquarium takes us into the heart of a brave young girl whose longing for love and capacity for forgiveness transforms the damaged people around her.

266 pages, Hardcover

First published March 3, 2015

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About the author

David Vann

29 books584 followers
Published in 19 languages, David Vann’s internationally-bestselling books have won 15 prizes, including best foreign novel in France and Spain and, most recently, the $50,000 St. Francis College Literary Prize 2013, and appeared on 70 Best Books of the Year lists in a dozen countries. He has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Outside, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Elle UK, Esquire UK, Esquire Russia, National Geographic Adventure, Writer’s Digest, McSweeney’s, and other magazines and newspapers. A former Guggenheim fellow, National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Wallace Stegner fellow, and John L’Heureux fellow, he is currently a Professor at the University of Warwick in England and Honorary Professor at the University of Franche-Comté in France.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 901 reviews
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,847 reviews34.9k followers
September 7, 2018
Update again for those interested...
$1.99 Kindle special- again today. I’ve read this book 3 times - had received the ebook early advance Arc copy years ago...
Then bought the hardcopy for myself with the little colored photos of fish. It’s a gorgeous physical book..
And I’ve given this book as a gift a few times.
Is it the best book in the world? Of course not...but am I glad I read it? Absolutely- would not have wanted to miss this one.

I’m still regretful that I didn’t make it to SF the evening came to the states to speak in front of a large audience. I knew he was coming too. I had several great chats with him about this book after I read it -

Ok... sure I have my personal reasons for why this book means so much to me - and each time I read it - I got something different
- but I’ll always be amazed of the guts it had to take to write parts of this book. I honestly couldn’t breathe the first time through.

Sorry to hype it. Some readers don’t like it. So there ‘is’ that too! But if curious— $1.99 is less than a Starbucks coffee.

And ... mostly ... warm Friday greetings to the many people I soooo love in this community!

New Update: $1.99 Kindle special..... One of my FAVORITE BOOKS! After I read an early read-arc -Kindle. I bought the hard copy book (which nobody can have: its mine). I've read this book 3 times!
I just connect to this story! Good price even for an average book! :) happy weekend!

***Update: (April, 2016) I read this book 2 years ago ---six months before the book was first released in stores on my Kindle (one of my favorite advance reader gift-opportunities) --The day the book was out in stores --I bought the physical copy. I've read this book 3 times --and continue to discover quotes that rock my world.
I arrived home last night : 1:30am-from a two week stay- in Saint Petersburg, Florida. I visited several wonderful beaches, museums, and 'my daughter'.
This morning --back here at home -my local book club is discussing this book, "The Aquarium". I've waited two years for this book to get 'picked' by our large Bay Area group of over 500 members....in total (who are all involved in the voting process) --yet only 25 members are allowed to RSVP to the 'in person' gatherings each month. We have a full house --(20 people were on the waitlist) --so I can't miss this morning --(tired or not) --not would I!!!

If you have not read this book yet....read through the many 'other' wonderful reviews on this site.
It rocked my world two years ago --It still does today!!!!

.....(Nov. 2014)
I feel completely inferior to express my deepest appreciation for this book. My body is still buzzing. All my senses have been intensified.

As soon as I was finished reading --I started for a 2nd run-through. My husband is home recovering from a serious Mt. biking accident -both arms in casts & challenges with eye focus from the head concussion, so I read "Aquarium" to him. Paul's rating is also a solid 5 stars.

I can name 'quickly' a few of my FAVORITE (meaningful to me) books I've read in --say the last 4 or 5 years -- Name 5 or 6 books FAST --Books I ALWAYS keep in my thoughts ---and "AQUARIUM" is now one of 'these' types of books for me: A STRONG FAVORITE!!!!!!

I read many books worthy of 4 and 5 stars --but this book is beyond STARS. Its a book that just should be read by 'everyone'!
MEN, WOMAN, TEENS (male/female teens), People from ALL WALKS of LIFE with a wide variety of interests can find value in this very creative beautifully written novel.

There is one scene in this book that will floor readers. I was soooooooo on the edge --as in dying on the edge --I couldn't believe what I was reading! NO NO NO --I kept saying to myself --'can't be'! --
YOU MUST READ THIS to find out what I am speaking about!!!

Twelve year old Caitlin, who wishes to be an ichthyologist one day, and prays to "The Golden Fish" gives the heartbeat to this story. Every character in this story is fully developed. I'm already casting -in my head- for the movie!

Since I don't want to give much away, I'll share some powerful-provoking quotes from the story:

1) "What do we owe for what has come before us, the previous generations?"

2) "A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable."

3) "This is what I loved about a city, all the world's hidden away inside, largest of aquariums."

4) "I was jangly from lack of sleep, buzzing inside. My spine alive as a sea horse fin, fluttering."

5) "And she was far above me, in class, family, intelligence, and sophistication and knowledge and beauty, and we didn't yet consider those things, and I couldn't yet feel inadequate in the adult way, really, even in the terrible shame of that day."

6) "Anything is possible with a parent. Parents are gods. They make and destroy us. They warp the world and remake it their own shape, and that's the world we know forever after."

Powerful, Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,284 reviews119k followers
August 25, 2021
(4/25/15 - I added at the bottom a bit on a book tour stop Vann made in Brooklyn)
Anything is possible with a parent. Parents are gods. They make us and they destroy us. They warp the world and remake it in their own shape, and that’s the world we know forever after. It’s the only world. We can’t see what it might have looked like otherwise.
I have no idea how hard my parents’ lives were as kids. By the time I had gained enough self-awareness to seriously wonder, too far into adulthood, they were gone. It must have been a bitch though, for both of them. Mom was the oldest of four when her father took off. My preemie father’s mother died in childbirth or soon after. His father dumped him off to be raised by relations. History is the connective tissue, the tendons, ligaments, and cartilage that joins generations. But connective tissue can get inflamed, making those connections sources of pain instead of strength and flexibility. I know mine has endured its share of soreness. In David Vann’s latest novel, Aquarium, twelve-year-old Caitlin Thompson has discovered a particularly vulnerable familial connection and, unknowingly, has worked it sufficient to make her mother cry uncle.

David Vann - photo from Totally Dublin site

Caitlin spends her after-school hours at the Seattle Aquarium, seeing in the fish and their environments images of the larger world.
We know fish are always on guard, hiding at the mouth of a cave or in seaweed or clung to coral, trying to look invisible. Their ends could come from anywhere, at any time, a lager mouth out of the dark and all instantly gone. But aren’t we the same? A car accident at any moment, a heart attack, disease, one of those containers coming loose and falling through the sky, my mother below not even looking up, seeing and feeling nothing, just the end.
Cheery kid, ain’t she? Her single mother, Sheri, works at the docks in a dead-end job. They scrape by, but barely, living in a low-rent box of an apartment near Boeing Field, an airport from which many test flights begin. During her aquarium time, Caitlin is befriended by an elderly man who seems as interested in the fish as she. The friendship results in a major family revelation that rocks her world and almost swamps her mother’s.

What came first, the fish or the egg? On in this case, the image or the characters? Vann fills us in.
The book was inspired long ago by a visit to the Seattle Aquarium, when I read the descriptions of the fish at each tank. Those descriptions seemed to me a kind of poetry of human behavior told through the oddity of fish.
Hah! So there is an answer! The central image of the aquarium as reflective of life is a strong one, and is used generously throughout the book. There were some times when I had the feeling that Vann was conducting a class, showing his pupils how images are found and applied to human experience and to story writing. You do not have to do much diving to turn up imagery here. Vann has left it all floating at the surface for you to see. Turns out this was by design.
I want a reader to see what happens, how meaning is created in a book…
In a 2013 interview with Kevin Breathnach of Totally Dublin, Vann said:
All my fiction until now has been an attempt to set a bonfire to my family’s past, to burn away all my family’s shame and tragedy and failure. Goat Mountain is the end of that.
Well, maybe not quite. In addition to the aquarium inspiration from his younger days, Vann had some personal motivation fueling this book as well.
My mother and I had difficult times…and we’ve both been looking for ways to forgive each other…
Forgiveness figures large here. Our perspective on the events is from Caitlin at 32, looking back on events twenty years before, trying to come to terms with her relationship with her mother, and contemplating the nature of forgiveness. She has some issues with her mother for which absolution is a very live issue. Don’t we all?

The Seattle Aquarium - from Wikimedia

This is not your father’s David Vann book. I read his prior four books and can attest that this one swims a bit away from the school. His publisher calls it “a departure from his previous, darker work,” and it is indeed that. No violent deaths take place here, but it is David Vann, after all, so death does indeed make its presence felt, by reference at least. And while the overt body count is on the very low end, there is enough tension, conflict and emotional violence to remind you who the author is. Typically Vann’s males are prone to violence, sometimes to carnage. This time, while far from perfect, they serve a nurturing role. There is also contemplation of the larger universe, and our place in it, another Vann marker. Maybe Vann is trying to reconstitute a familial holy trinity after having savaged one in Goat Mountain.

Of course there are some similarities to earlier work. Our narrator is an adult looking back on events that took place in childhood, just as in Goat Mountain. There is an element of the atavistic, the Edenic, the primordial, and the fear it nurtures. Goat Mountain featured a landscape that defined, and stressed the characters in the book. Here, the natural landscape takes a back seat to the man-made environment of cramped spaces and dangerous workplaces. The exception is a dark scene in which the great outdoors becomes menacing, particularly when abetted by youthful imagination. And the desire of one character to get back to nature is almost a comic one, as if Vann is looking at the relationship between man and nature in his earlier books, and in his family’s history, and putting it into some perspective.

Some notions swim by with regularity. The need for refuge is a big one. Vann uses the aquarium fish needing safe hideouts as an example that is writ large in the lives of his characters, in multiple instances. Religion comes in for a look, particularly in Caitlin’s school project. This is a light look at how contemporary secular society minimizes the power of religion by trying to accommodate all of them.

The book is physically beautiful. The paper is a heavier than usual stock, with attractive light blue used for chapter initials, page numbers at bottom, and titles at the top of pages and, unusually, there are sixteen color images of many of the mentioned fish. This all reinforces the feel of lighter-than-usual Vann fare.

Although I doubt that Aquarium will be marketed as a YA title, it is the Vann book you would be most ok with your teenager reading. David Vann light? (Vann has referred to it as a comedy – “not as in ha ha but as in nobody dies in the end.”) Not only does it offer an interesting story, well drawn characters and an engaging storyline, you (or your progeny) will get a bit of a tutorial on how imagery is used in creating fiction. There may be some sharp-toothed critters swimming around inside, but it is ok to press your face up against the glass and take a good, long look. While Aquarium may not offer the Jaws-like chomp of his earlier work, there is still enough bite here to recommend it.

Review posted – 2/27/2015

Publication date – March 3, 2015

I received an early copy of Aquarium from Grove Press in return for an honest review

This review has also been posted at Cootsreviews.com, or soon will be

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Vann's previous novel, Goat Mountain, was tough and beautiful. His earlier novel, Caribou Island was my favorite book of 2011, a dazzler. His 2008 Legend of a Suicide is compelling reading as well.

The author's website and his GR page – his website includes, among other things, a large list of interviews

The Seattle Aquarium site, if you want to drop by for a better look

Aquarium was selected for Amazon's Best Books of the Month for March 2015

==========================BOOK TOUR STOP

Spring always exposes winter's secrets. March 11 was flirting with 60, pulling back the icy edges of frozen crimes, large and small. Snowpiles that were nearly soot gray had melted down to concentrate the grit to nearly black. I had dressed lightly but still had to wipe my brow to keep my eyes from drowning in salt. Brooklyn Heights is not the same place it was when Whitman padded up and down the streets. Monopod cranes have sprouted like mushrooms after the rain. Downtown features a new, hi-rise business district, Metro-Tech, complete with thousands of day-timers in gray or blue suits. Expensive places have arisen adjacent to pizza, Burger King, and the sundry lower rent eateries that have fed the working class for generations here. The subways have become increasingly crowded, feeding a Jay Street station that seems to be under constant construction.

St Francis College is half a block from federal and state courts, a commuter school of the Catholic persuasion, with facilities in several buildings. I found the right one, and was directed to the 7th floor. The room was a theater, eight rows of seats, with flip-up desk slabs, tiered up to the rear, a dozen or so to a row, a wood lectern with a St Francis logo on its face centered in a flat expanse at front. A large whiteboard behind. Black curtains that had to be twenty five feet high covered portions of wall and some of the floor-to-ceiling windows. The portion by the window had been pulled unevenly, exposing more at top than bottom. It does not matter much. A few dozen feet away the building across the street was doing an excellent job of blocking whatever late day light might have a mind to wander in. Theater lights shone dimly.

David Vann looked fit and serene. He had just come, he said, from Viet Nam, where he had been kite-surfing, rubbing our harsh winter in Brooklyn faces. He talked about the problems he had had getting attention for his work. St Francis had given him a considerable award a few years back, a real difference-maker, enough to keep him at his craft when there was a question of whether or not he would be able to continue. Vann changed publishers recently, moving from Harper to Grove. There are some differences. Whereas his last four novels have all been tragedies, the one he was promoting on this book tour, Aquarium, was a comedy. Not, that is, in the ha-ha-funny meaning, but in the classical sense of having a happy ending. He has been mining his family experience for writing material, and said that his family was quite pleased to see him move on to something else. Of course, the material in question actually does relate to his experience growing up, so I am not sure how honest he was with his family or with himself about the book being a post-Vann-family work.

Vann charmed the audience. It was mostly college students in attendance, a full house in a room that holds about seventy, with a smattering of grays like myself. Vann thanked St Francis for their career life preserver a few years back, then read a passage. He will sell no books with his anti-theatrical droning performance. It is too bad. The book is pretty good. It made me remember trying, without much success, to get my children to read aloud more slowly. I guess there is not much to be done for it. Some are good at this. Some not so much. Actors fare best. Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, and an actress, is a dazzling reader. Sorry, I could not find a sample of her reading. I had the pleasure many years ago of seeing Jim Dale read from the Harry Potter series in a live performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This is the way, the reading, not the venue, that it should be done. Modulation, different voices, feeling. I do not have a link to that performance, but here is one of Dale reading at Barnes and Noble, for a taste. After the reading, Vann took questions. A few nuggets emerged.

There are long delays between the origin of his novel ideas and their realization. His novel Dirt , for example, was based on the second short story he'd ever written.

Vann got permission from fishbait.org to use their images of fish in the novel.

He sees the core of novel-writing as a character and a landscape. Writing about landscape is a sort of Rorschach test, suggesting the inner life of characters. It is through description of landscape that character and theme are revealed. Drama is the struggle between characters. One interaction leads to another, leads to another and thus a story is built.

He allows almost no editing of his submitted work, which. I am sure, makes him a real peach to work with.

Vann sees his work as following the classical Greek concerns and forms.

Why do we act as we do? Who knows?

He wrote his novella Sukkwan Island while on a sail to Hawaii. Writing, he says, is a way to be made whole.

He has another book in the can, about Medea. Sounded to me that he wanted to go with this one rather than with Aquarium, but it was a bit of a hard sell. He says Harper turned it down as "too literary." It is more of the blood and guts brand of material for which he is known, and, as that material has not had great success in the market, (he did note that one of his books had sold only five thousand copies) his new publisher persuaded him to go with lighter fare, hoping to build back his audience. He does not yet have a publisher for the Medea book.

Vann's day job is as a Professor at the University of Warwick in England. And the professorial geek DNA was on display as well. He is working on a translation of Beowulf. He took some time to rant about the lousy translation Seamus Heaney had done of the story. He noted the use of meter in writing, noting with particular admiration the Latin meter (ok, I don' t really know what this is either) used by Marilyn Robinson in The Shipping News.

The word "legend" of Legend of a Suicide is used not in the fable sense but in the older meaning of the word as a portrait. The book was a series of portraits, each written from different perspectives, of what the core suicide meant.

Family is both what destroys you and makes you.

Grammatical arrangement (slavish accession to norms of grammar) interferes with the expression of content. Sentence fragments are more like ancient language, and thus can express primitive feelings well.

So that was it, I said hi, thanked him for granting me an interview a while back, shook his hand and was on my way. The melting snow of March had not peeled back entirely, but a few more bits had come to light.

This bit posted 4/25/15
Profile Image for Shelby *trains flying monkeys*.
1,560 reviews5,818 followers
May 11, 2016
Twelve year old Caitlyn spends her afternoons at the aquarium. Her over-worked mom buys her a pass so that she can stay there afterschool until her mom gets off work. Caitlyn doesn't mind though because fish are her favorite things.
Palm Springs commercial photography

One afternoon Caitlyn meets an old man that is hanging out at the aquarium. He starts coming everyday to see the fish and to see Caitlyn.
Palm Springs commercial photography

Caitlyn's mom finds out and freaks out. Sure, that the old man is a big old perv bucket and is out to take Caitlyn and run.
Then they find out who the man is and it brings Sheri's past back to haunt her.
Now I understand having a crappy past. Lots of us do...but dammmmmnn this was the most messed up mom.
Palm Springs commercial photography

I was actually uncomfortable reading some of it. I felt dirty. I felt ragey. I felt broken, by a book.
Anything is possible with a parent. Parents are gods. They make us and they destroy us. They warp the world and remake it in their own shape, and that's the world we know forever after. It's the only world. We can't see what it might have looked like otherwise.
Palm Springs commercial photography

Booksource: I won a copy of this book from firstreads at Goodreads. Woot!

Palm Springs commercial photography
Check out my friend Cher's review she loved this one and I adore how Cher does her reviews.
Profile Image for Angela M (On a little break).
1,270 reviews2,217 followers
May 12, 2015

One of the things that immediately impressed me about David Vann was how a man could create this narrative from the viewpoint of a 32 year old woman looking back and speaking to us from here 12 year old self . Later I became more impressed that Vann somehow made me want to continue reading after some raw and brutal moments that made me put the book down. But I couldn't put it down for long because I had to know how Caitlin's story would end . I can usually read a 300 page book in 2 or 3 days . This one was 272 pages and I read it in one day , reading most of the afternoon and staying up pretty late .

I loved Caitlin from the beginning and I just had a feeling her heart might get broken and so would mine . There is something so endearing and pure about a child narrator , even if they are smart and precious as Caitlin is . And so began the knot in my stomach that didn't give way until the end .

Sheri is a single Mom , a hard working laborer on the docks in Seattle who struggles to provide for Caitlin . She can get by but never get ahead. Caitlin spends a lot of time alone and goes to the Aquarium after school to wait for her mother to get out of work . Caitlin has no sense of a family because it's just her and her mother and she has the constant fear of losing her. Caitlin loves fish and her time spent at the Aquarium studying them . The descriptions of the fish are amazing , not the ones on the signs by the tanks but in how Caitlin describes them . This is a solitary enjoyment until she meets an old man at the Aquarium and they become friends . At first their meetings seemed a little creepy to me until we learn who the old man is .

But more than creepy and brutal is what we see later when the floodgates open up to the past that her mother never talked about . I can't even touch on what happens here not just because I don't want to give it away . I could use spoiler tags . I just can't even describe it so it will have to be enough to say it was gut wrenching.

While this was a quick read , it was not an easy one dealing with emotional and physical abuse , the impact of horrible things in the past that create people's future ability to cope or not as was the case here .

My only disappointment was that in the e-galley version , I missed out on what must be beautiful pictures of the fish since I could only see black and white photos that weren't very clear to begin with . Maybe the pictures would have loosened that knot in my stomach. The only complaint I have was that the ending felt too rushed just tying things up and I would like to have known more about Caitlin over the 20 years . But I can hardly give it less than five stars . I woke up this morning thinking about this book and more than likely will think about it for a while more.

(Since I read and reviewed this book I was able to see the beautiful pictures of the fish by downloading the e-galley to my iPad . It would have been better to see them initially but they are beautiful),

Thanks to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley .
Profile Image for Debbie.
423 reviews2,682 followers
May 13, 2015
Fan-effing-tastic!! Favorite book of 2015 so far! My god, what a masterpiece! OMG OMG OMG!!!

I wasn’t planning on reading this book--it wasn’t on my 2015 Challenge List, lol. But a good friend excitedly read me some of the fish poetry. Beauteous! But is there a plot? I need plot! Yes, she assured me. Man oh man is there a plot. And it’s one of the most original stories I’ve ever read. I’m SO glad I veered off course and picked up this gem.

Here’s what it felt like:
Lyrical lyrical fish fish fish. Then wham! Drama drama solid prose, fast fast fast. Scary, heart-wrenching. Dangerous. Then back to the sing song of fish talk, beauteous, floaty. Oops, you don’t get to float too far away, because now you're pulled back into the muck, action action, intense, punch. And the fish pretty much swim away for a while as the story, strong, is the only thing in your field of vision, in your gut, in your soul. And you can't take your eyes off of it or pull your heart out of it, so don't even try.

As for the plot, all I will say is that it's about a sweet 12-year-old girl who loves fish, visits the aquarium every day, and meets an old man. Try not to read the reviews because the less you know, the better. Let the surprises hit you full force.

This book has one of the most intense scenes I’ve EVER read, seriously. The writing is phenomenal, the scene so vivid, you’re right there. It’s not gory, but as you witness the events, you twitch, wince, worry, and gasp. That’s too tame—you scream holy shit! But then you let out a breath (which you’ve been holding in like a mad fool), lean back in your chair, and say, oh I see how this could happen. The author threw some hot peppers from the past into the chili of the present, so what did I expect?

The fish metaphors are unique, profound, and plentiful. Apparently the book includes gorgeous pictures of fish; all I got on my Kindle were grayish blobs. Time to buy the hardback; this is a book I’ll want on my shelf anyway.

I can hear the complaints now. Some will be pissed that there aren’t any quote marks, which didn’t bother me at all; you could easily tell who was saying what. And others will say that the mean one is both too unbelievable and too despicable. Of course I ached for the victim. But I also saw why the mean one was so mean, and I could eke out a little sympathy. I said a LITTLE, guys. There will be people who can't forgive. And there are people who don't like a book because they don't like a character. Me? The madder the weirder the meaner, bring it on, as long as they are vivid and alive and complex.

This book reminds me of why I love literature. It's just fucking brilliant. Vann is a storyteller extraordinaire. Where has he been all my life? I must read his earlier work. I must.

Vann sprinkled some luscious food flakes into my fish tank and I swam over, tilted my head toward the sky, puckered my lips, and gulped, savoring every morsel. Food for my soul. Oh yes.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,638 followers
February 1, 2023
1/30/23: What a book. My third read. The story is stunning. Vann's choreography of the emotional journey is a wonder. My plan this time was to read for craft but this story makes my heart hurt, I can't hold it at arm's length.

12/5/21: I finished re-reading today and this time was struck anew by the way it captures a child's complex dependence on the adults in her life, the way this child, Caitlin, needs to read adults and their feelings and their flaws just to survive her childhood. Page 85 compresses the terror of this dependency and lack of choice: "I had no choice. All set in motion. All of childhood like that." It's the only declarative summary in the novel to describe a child whose mother is in the throes of a terrible trauma, and who has become a danger to her child, and who also has absolute power over her. Vann captures this vulnerability so perfectly.

first read:
A working class tragedy, beautifully told. The book almost follows Aristotle's three unities in its structure and story. It doesn't let you go. In addition to being impossible to put down it is exquisitely written. I can't remember having such a clear idea of what characters LOOK like, even though I don't recall any description in these pages.

Aquarium feels bigger than the story between its covers. This story made me think deeply about the nature of family, obligation, and forgiveness. A perfect book until perhaps its last few scenes which were a little too happy-ending for what came before but I felt these scenes written to take care of me as a reader, in a way, and so I forgave them, and was grateful to be taken care of.
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,394 reviews7,259 followers
June 17, 2015
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

“Origins. They don’t explain us, you know. They never do. Each of us is our own piece of work.”

When I read the premise of Aquarium I immediately decided it was most definitely NOT. FOR. ME. A 12-year old latchkey type of kid who spends her after school hours at the local aquarium and befriends an old man???? Uhhhhhh . . .

But damn this book was persistent. It would not stay off my feed. I finally decided to give it a go based on my buddy D.J.’s 5-Star review. (She’s waaaaaay nicer than me, but she’s still stingy with the handing out of all the stars.) She assured me the story would not go down the path I was trying to avoid, but that it was still extremely dark. Boy she wasn’t kidding . . .

(^^^Me getting skilleted by this book)

This sumbitch was HEAVY. If you’re like me and occasionally enjoy reading something that makes you think about how long you should stick your head in the oven or if you have enough rubber tubing to go from your exhaust pipe into your car window, this one might be a winner for you too. I’m not going to go into great detail about the plot because I think this is a book you need to read without any idea of what is to come. I’ll just say it’s the most depressing thing since . . . well, since this . . .

Yet somehow while you’re mired down in all of the gloom and darkness, there are glimpses of light and exquisite beauty . . .

that propel the reader through and offer some hope . . .

“We never know what will happen next, our lives unshaped.”

One final thing that deserves mentioning before I end this rambling mess of a review: I’ve spent a lot of time on Goodreads seeing warnings about triggers and have always tried to post the same – all the while believing I did not have any of my own. Until I read Aquarium, that is . . .

This book took me to a place I don’t want to go back to. Ever. And yet I still loved it. I encourage you to branch out of your comfort zone and give David Vann’s beautiful novel a try. Just go in with the knowledge that you might need to cry, or drink a bottle of wine, or lock yourself in your bedroom for a bit until the roller coaster of emotions subsides.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,686 reviews14k followers
March 29, 2015
This book is a full package presentation, exquisitely assembled with the utmost care. The cover resembles iridescent fish scales, shades of silver, pink and aqua. The title of the novel, "aquarium' written in silvery aqua print. Simply gorgeous. Inside the end papers are on brilliant aqua and the pages are thickly cut. The aquarium is where a twelve year old girl first encounters a man who turns out to be someone very important in her life'. The pictures of the fishes they seem real and expressive, brilliantly colored. Just a beautifully put together, one of the best I have seen lately, so much thought.

As for what I read, soul searing want and need, forgiveness and redemption fairly tremble off the pages. A young twelve year old wanting a family, wanting a complete mother emptied of hate and will, sacrifice all to get this. Can she literally drag forgiveness from people who have no wish to yield it? Such a brilliant and yes, even creepy read about the need to start over, a second chance to grab what is lost and start again. Using fish as a metaphor this search for family is original, the need to make over, universal, but will it work with people whom have such an ugly past behind them?

Unique, original, powerful, can't, say I enjoyed but I do admire this author's talent, and will seek out more of his work.

Profile Image for Debbie "DJ".
350 reviews393 followers
May 31, 2015
I absolutely LOVED this book. Wow! What a writer David Vann is! The beginning is so original. Fish! But not the kind of fish that automatically come to mind, fish that are rarely seen. Vann describes them so poetically, and each is related to our human world and emotions. Since I love biology so much, for me I couldn't get enough. So many exquisite paragraphs! Here's an example of just one, "Body of small green leaves, veined, very thin, it's fins painted in light cast from elsewhere, but from his eye out a long snout, an eruption of galaxies without foreign source, born in the fish itself. An opening in the small fabric of the world, a place to fall into endlessly." Vann spoke to me of so many incredible fish that might be gone in a mere 100 years. Just what do we owe what has come before us, and what of future generations?

Of course this isn't all about fish, but I loved the way they were seamlessly woven into the main plot. And, oh my, what a plot it is! It's all told through the eyes of a twelve year old girl, Caitlin. All I will say is that it deals with the powerful emotions of anger, resentment, the loss of innocence, and forgiveness.

My only complaint was Vann's desire to tie up all loose ends in the book. I thought I had finished with the most beautiful ending, but there were still more pages. I felt they were completely unnecessary, but they were not long, and I still LOVE this book!
Profile Image for Linda.
1,167 reviews1,212 followers
October 8, 2016
"An old man next to me suddenly, his voice an unwelcome surprise. No one ever spoke to me here. Dark rooms, humid and warm, haven from the snow outside."

Twelve year old Caitlin Thompson sits poised before the glass encased sanctuaries. Artificial renderings of ocean habitats. Beautiful specimens hiding and blending and reacting with genetically encoded responses. Much like their human counterparts, these fish, these squatters of the sea. Mesmorized by movement and non-movement alike.

Caitlin waits for her mother, Sheri, to retrieve her at the end of her laborious shift dressed in heavy work boots and overalls. Mother and daughter form a cocoon within the walls of their public housing apartment. Private. So unlike those fish sanctuaries within the Aquarium. Snuggling under the covers with their own sense of camouflage. Species quite unknown to the public.

Until all would change......Caitlin begins heart-rendering conversations with this age-spotted old man who resembles much of the speckled fish behind the glass with his wirey hair and slow gait. He soon becomes Caitlin's haven. A port in the storm of her lacklustre life. Shifted here and there by her mother, Caitlin savors the attention and any nugget of deep conversation. She and the old man set up a time for Caitlin's mother to meet him. And this ship at sea capsizes.....

David Vann presents a heavy, heavy experience within these pages. Please know that it is not for the light-hearted. Vann's character of Sheri throws back shots from the Bar of Vengeance like no other. She swallows gulps of poison continuously with the dissolutioned aim of killing her transgressor. Such bitterness can leave a stain upon the very ones that we profess to love. It is very, very difficult to experience. But it attempts to reveal a raw reality.

The character of Caitlin dances through the pages beckoning you, the reader, to follow. You must know. You must know. Vann is remarkable as to how he gets into the heads of his female characters with such finesse. I watched with awe as he created such scenarios in Caribou Island. This is brilliant work here by a superb author. But his steps into this literary world can bring such deep impressions of heartbreak. And yet, Vann leaves behind the fragrance of hope and perhaps lessons lived within the slow-moving grains of time.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,508 reviews2,507 followers
November 24, 2015
(3.5) So I kept wondering what the metaphorical significance of the aquarium fish in this book might be. Turns out David Vann just really likes fish. Here’s the revelatory passage from his memoir, A Mile Down:

I’ve loved tropical fish all my life, at one point in junior high had eight aquariums spread throughout the house. For years, even in upstate New York, in grad school, I had gazed at fish every night, watching how they fluttered, imagined myself suspended in warm water with them, so this [snorkeling in the Tobago Cays] was heaven for me, to spend a little quality time with the fish.

I’ve been a huge fan of Vann’s fiction ever since Caribou Island slapped me upside the face in 2011, so a new book from him is a big deal for me. In some ways, it’s very different from the rest of Vann’s oeuvre, but in other ways you can see how the previous books have prepared for this one.

Like Goat Mountain (2013), Aquarium is narrated by an adult looking back at a troubled event from childhood. As in Legend of a Suicide (2008), Caribou Island (2010) and Dirt (2012), a dysfunctional family situation looks set to boil over into unthinkable violence. Aquarium even shares a theme with the first story in Legend of a Suicide, titled “Ichthyology.”

On the other hand, this is the first of Vann’s novels to be set outside Alaska or California, and it also marks his first attempt at narrating from a female point-of-view. Aquarium also has a considerably less tragic vision than any of his previous works, several of which approach Greek tragedy in their bleak violence. But more on that later.

The novel is set in 1994, narrated in the first person by Caitlin, who is looking back from the present day (aged 32) at her twelve-year-old self. She lives with her single mother, Sheri, in the bad part of Seattle. Sheri works on the docks moving shipping containers – hard, cold work that has made her hard and cold, too. Her mom’s genial boyfriend, Steve, is an increasingly frequent visitor to their small apartment. Meanwhile, Caitlin’s best friend at school, Shalini, is an immigrant from New Delhi and everything about her, from her colorful clothing to her Hindu traditions, captivates Caitlin.

Every day after school Caitlin waits at the aquarium for her mom to pick her up. She has a season pass, and knows everything about fish; she says she wants to be an ichthyologist when she grows up, and refuses to eat fish – although, ironically, people keep cooking and serving it throughout the novel. At the aquarium she befriends an old man who also acts fascinated with the fish, and at first seems to be a little bit creepy, touching her arm and talking about taking her to Mexico and wanting to meet her mother. For a moment it seems like this will turn into a pedophilia drama, with Sheri and the police staging an intervention, until it turns out that the old man is Caitlin’s estranged grandfather.

Sheri detests her father because he left the family when her mother fell sick with cancer. For four years Sheri had to care for her ailing mother single-handedly, bathing, feeding and changing her while enduring verbal abuse. Sheri decides that Caitlin needs to understand what she went through, and thus why she hates her father so much and can’t just let him be Caitlin’s grandfather as if nothing ever happened. She concocts a plan of reenacting the very worst days of her mother’s illness. This section of the novel is very hard to read; I even had to set it aside for a day or two because I was afraid of just how far it would go.

Although Sheri still wants to punish her father, she accepts his offer of having them live with him in his three-bedroom Victorian; it means she can give up work and the apartment, and go back to school. All the same, she refuses to forgive him. A trip out in the snow to cut down a Christmas tree looks set to turn into a major tragedy (as in Goat Mountain, perhaps), but Vann pulls back from making it as awful as he could. In fact, the more threatening situation is Caitlin’s surprising sexual awakening, something I felt slightly uncomfortable reading about when I remembered that this is a twelve-year-old girl.

Vann has produced another memorable story of family breakdown – but here, more than in any previous book, there is a glimmer of hope that the family might piece things back together eventually. At the same time, it’s a powerful examination of the competing impulses to revenge and forgiveness. Some things, it seems, can never be forgotten and will shift the family dynamic forever. I could see this being a sort of gentle introduction to Vann’s work for someone who doesn’t want to plunge straight into the high Greco-Shakespearean tragedy of a book like Caribou Island (splendid though it is). Call it a gateway drug, if you will.

Much as I enjoyed the novel, I was left scratching my head over the metaphorical significance of the fish. Perhaps an aquarium stands for life’s constrictions; like fish in tanks, characters are trapped by destructive habits and bitterness. Hardy yet fragile, fish have various survival strategies such as hiding or metamorphosing, terms that certainly apply to the humans in the novel. It is especially noteworthy that the book includes 18 color photos of aquarium fish. It may seem like a strange choice to print them in the text, but maybe Vann didn’t think he could convey the colors and strangeness of various fish without them.

Ultimately, I think the fish represent primal nature – life at its most basic but also its most enduring. I noted when reading “Ichthyology,” from Legend of a Suicide, that the aquarium fish there seemed like a symbol of powerlessness. As an earlier evolutionary stage, they might be a reminder of the beautiful simplicity humanity has lost, but also a salient warning of the animal diversity we are losing every day:
By the end of the century, nearly all fish will be gone. The entire legacy of humanity will be only one thing, a line of red goop in the paleo-oceanographic record, a time of no calcium carbonate shells that will stretch on for several million years. The sadness of our stupidity is overwhelming.

Or maybe David Vann just really likes fish.

Assessing Vann’s oeuvre, I would place this novel squarely in the middle of the pecking order. (Caribou Island is a 5-star masterpiece; Goat Mountain is a 4-star fable. Because I read it later on, I appreciated Legend of a Suicide more as a rehearsal for Caribou Island than anything else; I’d give it 3 stars. Dirt is undoubtedly the hardest of Vann’s novels to love, with some truly abhorrent characters; I’d call it 2.5 stars.)

(This review originally appeared at Bookkaholic.)
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,473 followers
November 21, 2014
I know Vann has some other good books out there, but this one was a great introduction to his talents. A twelve-year old girl tells her story of discovery and hope in the context of a disturbing family drama in contemporary Seattle. Her single mom, Sheri, works hard at a container shipping facility, and each day Caitlin spends her afternoons grooving on the wonders at the aquarium. Her life may suffer from the grimness of poverty and the constraints of a tiny apartment in an industrial neighborhood, but she thrives through her imagination.

The many strange creatures at the aquarium seem to hold lessons for life for her. Some are so outrageously colorful and odd, but seem to get along fine in letting their freak flag fly in a protected cave-like space, while others camouflage themselves by emulating seaweed or coral in their environment. Vann places wonderful pictures of some of these beasties, so we get to look over her shoulder as she ponders their marvels. She befriends an old man there, who shares her fascination with these windows on another world. For example, at the king crab tank, the old man has this exchange with her:

I can see myself in the fish, …, but not in the crabs.
Me either. Those tiny eyes on stalks have nothing behind them. And that mouth. You can’t call that a mouth. It’s just more legs.
…You’re right that it’s the mouth, he said. If it had lips, we’d feel closer to it. All we need are eyes and lips, apparently, and we think we can say hello. I don’t think I realized that before, how much we need the world to look like us.

Pretty cool Mandarin fish. In this case, the variety of colors with the same patterns makes Caitlin realize that "discovery is only the revealing of what was hidden but there, waiting."

Her secret world gives her courage to face the drab rainy world of the city and stays in her mind as she negotiates its narrow, mean streets:

A gauntlet leading to a sanctuary. I could have stayed in an after school program, but it was my choice to visit the fish. They were emissaries sent from a larger world. They were the same as possibility, a kind of promise.
When I crossed over the freeway, downtown began. The hill slanting downward, large buildings shaped like wedges burrowed into the hill, hiding in their own caves. Hunched for safety, as if something enormous swam in the skies above. One brave skyscraper at the end with a pointy top, trying not to look soft. The entire city a colony like coral, made of an endless network of small chambers.

But terrible anxieties creep in. She has only her mother for a family, and the thought of losing her to the dangers of the world is almost too much to bear. Sheri’s fierce overprotectiveness works on her. Through an alliance with her mother’s boyfriend she begins to drag out of her some elements of dark family secrets, in the process bringing up some monsters from the deep. The choices Sheri has made to survive have had a great cost, and her awakened demons have a monstrous impact on the shape of their lives. Caitlin’s persistence and courage in staying afloat had a big emotional impact on me. Throughout it all, her grounding in a special friendship with an Indian girl at school is wonderfully rendered. Caitlin’s budding sexuality was also handled with great sensitivity and sense of electric discovery, contrasting well with the jaded outlook of the adult world she is exposed to.

Children are fed on fairy tales, and part of growing up is coming to terms with the dark messages they hide like booby traps. Caitlin seems driven by the prospect of a life transformation like in the Cinderella story. But along the way realities intervene and other tales blend into life’s story like a waking nightmare:

Some fairy tale on pause, the cottage door never opening. Characters gone to the wrong place, the wrong story. Little Red Riding Hood finding herself at the houses of the Three Pigs. The wolf out there somewhere but not the right wolf, and the pigs asleep and don’t hear Little Red knocking, or maybe its the Three Bears who are sleeping in the houses now. We never know what will happen next, our lives unshaped.

I am a big fan of coming of age stories, and this one shook me up and eventually floated my boat with the best of them. I always assumed when I was growing up that adults had some special power and wisdom that allowed them to run the world, and that somehow those capabilities would someday somehow get transferred to me in due time. The dawning of awareness that most adults are messed up and may not deserve their power is a rude awakening. But the idea that a lot of the problem derives from them going through the same challenges of growing up is a mind bender that takes a long time to digest. At one point Sheri speeds this knowledge for Caitlin by reflecting on her own twisted coming of age at the hands of her mother:

Anything is possible with a parent. Parents are gods. They make us and they destroy us. They warp the world and remake it in their own shape, and that’s the world we know forever after. It’s the only world. We can’t see what it might have looked like otherwise.

This book was provided for review through the Netgalley program. Unfortunately, interested readers will have to wait for its publication in March 2015. Meanwhile, you like me can pursue some of his earlier books.

Profile Image for Carol.
1,370 reviews2,121 followers
May 11, 2015

Where to start.....this was a spur of the moment pick for me not knowing what to read next.....you all know the feeling.....so instead of reading one of the umpteen books I already own, I decided to download another on my iPad bc of one review in particular I just happened to see on GR.....

To begin with, I must tell you the pictures of the various fish at the aquarium throughout the book were so amazing and lifelike, they seemed to jump out at me from the screen.....and their significance.....oh their significance

Anyway, I was only about a third of the way in when the creepiness began with an old man befriending a twelve year old (Caitlin) in the darkness of the aquarium, so I kind of thought I knew where the story was headed, but was I ever wrong......the next thing that happened was so shocking, unexpected and unbelievable, I almost could not bear to read it and nearly did call it quits......but continued on.

The bottom line.....if you can endure the horrors committed in this novel, there is a story of love, hope and forgiveness under it all.....but it's one hell of a shocking ride getting there. Not enjoyable, but certainly UNFORGETTABLE!

(Difficult to rate this novel as there were parts I truly did abhor reading, so -1 Star....for now)

Profile Image for Cher.
800 reviews272 followers
March 26, 2016
5 stars - Utterly amazing.

Unique, captivating, powerful, brilliant. I believe this is only the 2nd five star rating I have given this year, so when I say it was utterly amazing, I mean it. Those ratings are not tossed around lightly in my corner of the world! (The other 5 star rating was what continues to so far be my favorite read of the year thus far, The Orenda ). I started this little novel today and didn't put it down until I had read the very last page; it was that engrossing.

That being said, this is a very difficult, heavy read. Not the prose, as the prose is wonderful, simplistic yet powerful, and flows like honey. What is difficult is the powerful emotions the author evokes. When the main character is in an awkward situation, the reader feels incredibly awkward. When the main character feels terrified, the reader feels terrified. When the main character is in her happy place, the reader also feels instantly relaxed, warm and safe (at the aquarium). And when the main character is with another character that is temporarily insane and full of rage, the reader feels like they are right there in the same room as well.

If you are going to be reading this as an ebook, you must read it on a tablet or other color screen as the author has included vibrant pictures of the aquarium fish that must not be missed. No matter which format you will be reading, have your highlighter close by.

Favorite Quote: Each thing that happens to us, each and every thing, it leaves some dent, and that dent will always be there. Each of us is a walking wreck.

First Sentence: It was a fish so ugly it didn’t seem to be a fish at all.
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
465 reviews1,276 followers
March 7, 2016
Aquarium is one twisted story. Caitlin, 12, visits the aquarium daily as she waits for her mother after school. While being fascinated by the fish and their wondrous world of colour, depth and life, she befriends an old man who turns out to be her Grandfather. What follows is a vivid and brutal account where her mother torments her and demands she stop the relationship with her estranged father. This is a story of forgiveness, growth and redemption. The prose is eloquent. The pictures of the various fish, brilliant. Vann creates a world mirroring an ocean: calming at times and turbulent at others. For me a 4 ★ read.
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,016 reviews652 followers
June 13, 2015
There are things that happen to us in life that leave dents. Whether in the soul or in the mind, the damage is done. It may be forgivable, or it may not. 'One life can never know another's.'

Twelve year old Caitlyn doesn't eat fish because she loves them too much. Not hard to imagine, knowing she spends every afternoon at the Aquarium after school lets out. She knows the exhibits backwards and forwards, is a veritable fount of knowledge, well-schooled (if you will) in all things having to do with fish. So relatable to life, as it turns out. She lives with her mother, Sheri, who is a dock worker. Tired, underpaid, and struggling to make a decent life for the two of them, Sheri has all she can handle. A secret friendship that develops between Caitlyn and an old man who is also a regular at the Aquarium is destined to change everything.

The physical book itself is art in play, from the iridescent cover looking for all the world like sparkling fish scales, to the wonderfully thick pages, spotted with gorgeous photos of colorful fishies, just lovely. The art continues with the writing and a storyline that is different from any other.
Profile Image for Caroline .
406 reviews550 followers
February 16, 2020

It can’t be denied: There’s more to this story than meets the eye. This starts out as placid as its aquarium setting, with a girl, an old man, and lots of pretty and unusual fish, but those thinking Aquarium is too sweet and perfect will wonder before long why they ever thought such a thing.

The narrator is tween Caitlin, a likable character who becomes friends with an old man. This kind of friendship has been done countless times before, but author David Vann avoided cliché. In part, this is thanks to his decision to have an aquarium play a central role. Throughout, he drew comparisons between the ocean and marine life in general to everyday life:
Evelyn was staring at me as if I were in a tank, some new species first swimming in the open to be observed. My arms become fins again, but not of lace or leaves. They felt heavy as rock, fins made of stone, unable to grab at the water. Stuck on the ocean floor, held down as eyes peered in, magnified.
The feel of the aquarium is starkly different from the feel of the narrator’s home, yet Vann connected the two intimately. It’s at the aquarium or when pondering ocean life that Caitlin is her most introspective and grasps truths about herself and ordinary life; indeed, Aquarium is one of the more quotable books out there:
"Anything is possible with a parent. Parents are gods. They make us and they destroy us. They warp the world and remake it in their own shape, and that's the world we know forever after. It's the only world. We can't see what it might have looked like otherwise."
"Each thing that happens to us, each and every thing, it leaves some dent, and that dent will always be there. Each of us is a walking wreck."
"The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable."
Vann’s priority was scene-setting, because his characters could've used more dimension. That's especially obvious with the old-man character, who's unfailingly caring and meek to the point of saintly. Vann did present a history of some characters that fleshes them out but only somewhat. Mainly he settled for black-and-white portrayals.

As if wanting to make sure that Aquarium is recognized as a coming-of-age story, Vann also tackled Caitlin’s growing sexual awareness in some frank and eye-opening scenes. These aren't totally realistic for a few reasons, but they're outstanding in adding an element of hard truth and cutting sweetness. What’s unfortunate is that this is the only part that’s coming-of-age. It’s a shame; here Vann fashioned this charming, honest twelve-year-old yet never explored anything else typical of this time in a person’s life, such as the myriad competing emotions and confusion.

This book is a bit odd because it starts one way, then transforms drastically into something else. In an unpredictable twist, Vann tackled some big, deeply sad and disturbing issues. They’re not too much to swallow, but the tone change is jarring. This “post-twist” section is definitely gripping, although it could've been more powerful. Other authors have done some of what Vann did here but more fully realized. The “big issues” are intriguingly shocking, gritty even. It’s really laudable that Vann was unafraid to make his reader so uncomfortable; nevertheless, the scenes don’t pack quite the knock-down punch he was aiming for, with the underdeveloped characterization largely to blame for that. Still, Aquarium is memorable and should be read to experience the ultra-quotable prose; Caitlin’s voice; startling, page-turning scenes; and that twist.

NOTE: This book contains photos of fish throughout; I therefore recommend avoiding the audio version and maybe also e-book. Paper form is ideal.
Profile Image for Dianne.
549 reviews882 followers
July 5, 2015
First of all, if you are going to read this book, do yourself a favor and read the hardcopy version. The physical book is a work of art in itself – a beautiful, textured silver/blue fish scale patterned jacket. Thick, creamy pages with colored plates of the fish referenced in the story. Large wide-spaced font that is easy on the eye. It’s a visual and tactile experience that should not be missed.

The writing is amazing. The downside of reading a hard copy is not being able to highlight passages to reflect on later. In the first part of the book, the conversations between Caitlyn and the old man about the fish in the aquarium are gems.

“I found him at the darkest tank, in a corner, alone, peering through what could have been a window to the stars, endless black and cold and only a few points of light. Hung in this void like a small constellation, the ghost pipefish, impossible.

Like a leaf giving birth to stars, I said, whispering, as if any sound might make the fish vanish.

Yes, the old man whispered back. Exactly that. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Sometimes I can’t believe you’re only twelve. You should become an ichthyologist. This is who you are.”

Do you know what a ghost pipefish looks like? Of course you don’t – so the author provides a lovely colorful picture of the fish so you can see for yourself how apt Caitlyn’s description is.

The story is about Caitlyn, her mother Sheri, and the old man. Sheri is raising Caitlyn on her own , working as a basic laborer in the container port in Seattle. They live in poverty, isolated with no family and no support. Caitlyn spends her afternoons after school in Seattle’s aquarium, where she waits for her mother to pick her up after work. It is here Caitlyn encounters the old man and they become friends, bonding over their shared interest in the fish. One day, the old man asks to be introduced to Caitlyn’s mother – and all hell breaks loose.

The book becomes very intense and uncomfortable and there is violence – there is an immense, boundless rage here. To the author’s credit, however, for the most part he keeps you on the hook. You ride out these parts because you want to see what happens next and what will happen to these characters.

I am not sure I totally buy into the ending, but I can see the appeal.

Well done – I can promise you will not forget this one.
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,016 reviews552 followers
June 4, 2015
Caitlin is 12 years old and lives in run-down and sparse accommodation in Seattle with her mother, Sheri. After school each day she visits the local aquarium where she stares at the fish with wonder and awe. On one such day, while she waits for her mother to pick her up, she meets an old man who she befriends.

This is the set-up for a novel that starts out like a fairy tale but takes a dark turn to something much nastier and more challenging. Sheri’s job is physically demanding and as a single parent she works long hours to bring in enough money to stay afloat. She had a tough upbringing – a very tough upbringing – and we start to learn what impact this has had on her and what scars still remain. And, of course, how this impacts Caitlin.

As we read of Caitlin’s daily visits to the aquarium and her observations of the strange, weird and beautiful creatures she comes across it’s easy to think of the confinement they are subject to but also the safety this incarceration offers from predators. There are echoes of her own life here.

The story is told through the eyes of 32 year old Caitlin looking back on past events. This offers the opportunity for some reflection but in truth the book is focused firmly in the past. It’s a roller coaster ride and I found my emotions stretched in a number of directions. Beautifully written and totally believable, this is a tale that will stay with me and which I’ll almost certainly revisit one day.

In fact my only qualm with the book is that I read a Kindle version and I know that in paper form it offers brilliantly colourful illustrations of the aquarium creatures, instead of the insipid monotone efforts I was provided with. Ah well, next time...
Profile Image for Renee Godding.
570 reviews543 followers
December 25, 2020
“Each thing that happens to us, each and every thing, it leaves some dent, and that dent will always be there. Each of us is a walking wreck.”

Keeping to the theme here: Aquarium is somewhat like an anglerfish; it draws you in with the lightness of an innocent friendship between a young girl and an elderly man, who bond over their shared love for the local aquarium. Then it reveals its raw and harrowing true form and rips your heart to shreds where you least expected it.

Seriously: I was not prepared for what was coming my way. This was probably one of the books of this year that hit me the hardest, partially for that reason. And despite how uncomfortable it made me at times, despite its wrenching of my heart it: I adored it.
The story is told from the perspective of adult Caitlyn, who looks back on her own memories from when she was twelve years old, so essentially the story is told from a child’s perspective. Don’t let this fool you though: this is not suitable for young readers. I'd say this could well be read by a mature YA-reader, but I’d keep my hypothetical twelve-year-old away from this book, as there are very adult themes throughout!
Just like that anglerfish, there are some monsters in disguise lurking in this novel, and it’s not the one you might expect based on the synopsis.

So far my non-spoiler part: this novel is brilliant. The language is beautiful, the characters incredibly interesting and the story took me completely by surprise. If you want to read it, please, don’t read any further and go into this book blind. You can thank me later.

Into the spoilertank, we dive!


So… I lied earlier. There are no monsters in this book, just extremely damaged people. I’ve heard many people call mum a monster, and I’d forgive you for thinking so. Yet I personally don’t think they get more humanly flawed that this.
There isn’t a single character in this book that I didn’t hate at one point, and love at another. I could go into detail on every single on of them, because even the minor characters have a developed internal conflict and arc.
Take Steve, who is basically a bit of a passive bystander in everything, seemingly just here to have an uncomplicated relationship/sexlife with Sheri. Yet gradually, he learns to stand up against Sheri, for both her own sake, as well as his and Caitlyn’s. He becomes the actual partner she desperately needs, but doesn’t deserve based on her behavior.
Or grandpa, who has the most pure heart and just wants the forgiveness of his daughter and granddaughter for his previous mistakes. Yet in the end, he is still lacks the backbone to face his problems head on. Instead he rolls over and runs away, just like back then.

Then there is Caitlyn. My favorite part about her is the way she was written, which ties perfectly into David Vanns talent as an author. Not only is his prose beautiful and his story extremely well crafted; he also pulls of an extremely difficult point of view perfectly. The story is told from the p.o.v. of adult Caitlyn, recalling memories from 12-year-old Caitlyn. Many authors have done this before (perhaps the most well-known example among my readers: Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane), yet none of them did it better than Vann. It’s clear that 12-year-old Caitlyn doesn’t understand some of the nuances of what is happening; she sometimes simplifies thing like a child would do. Her responses to her mother’s behavior are that of a child, who cannot understand the full impact of what is happening here, and simply accepts the status quo.
Yet all of the characters are written with the depth, compassion and complexity that only an adult looking at the situation would grasp.
Then there is the relationship between Sheri and Caitlyn, which is the part where my heart was ripped to shreds by the aforementioned anglerfish. Sheri is a damaged woman, desperately trying to stay afloat, whilst being weighted down with the trauma of her past, of which her daughter is a constant reminder. Gradually we see her tipping over the edge into a state of rage and possibly temporary insanity. It’s horrible and inexcusable, yet somehow understandable. And it absolutely terrified me…
As someone who has been in a situation where they had to take care of a dying parent at a very young age, I can see the trauma that can bring with it. My mum was the sweetest person in the world and did NOT treat me the way Sheri’s mother does, but the guilt, the grief and feeling of inadequacy are very real to most people in this situation.
I’ll admit I have had moments where I wished for just a second that someone around me would have experienced the same, so they would understand me. So I would feel less alone.
I DON’T agree with anything Sheri does: it’s without a doubt the wrong way to react and the worst way to treat a child, yet her motivation is extremely realistic and true.

So… what’s with the fish…
I’ve heard many people ask this questions: what is the significance of the aquarium and the fish? Are they a metaphor, or does David Vann just really like fish?
The way I interpreted them, they are a metaphor, and a beautiful one at that. The key is in one of the dinner-scenes, where Caitlyn, her mother and mother’s boyfriend Steve are discussing their favorite fish. Mother doesn’t want to answer the question, and deflects saying she doesn’t have one: “adults don’t have time to think about things like that”. When pushed by Caitlyn and Steve, she finally reveals a quite endearing story about her own childhood.
During the worst times at home, young Sheri would find comfort in going to her neighbors pond and watching the single koi fish that made its home there. She loved how the rain would come down on the surface, unable to touch the creature floating just below it. She would come up from time to time, but could always float back down into her safe bubble, away from everything.
Caitlyn, at the aquarium, unknowingly mentions a similar sentiment about the aquarium being a microcosm, safe away from everything. She however, also acknowledges the predatory fish and ugly aspects of life in the tanks.
I think this is the significance of the aquarium: it symbolizes a protected, safe childhood. One that neither Sheri, nor Caitlyn had, but both longed for in a way. They both yearn for their own safe family-bubbles to protect them from those raindrops. Yet in both of their cases, the actual danger was inside their safe space all along.
David Vann; I tip my head to you for this honest character portrayal, horrible and confrontational and all. It’s a rare experience and the main reason I think this book will go down as an all time favorite for me.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Iris P.
171 reviews202 followers
February 4, 2017
Aquarium by David Vann

Raw, evocative, fierce and relentless are some of the adjectives that have been used to describe this book. Aquarium can also be described as a coming of age story, which are not particularly rare, but I am sure this is by far the most emotionally intense I've ever read.

On a pure visual level, this is a gorgeous book to look at. The novel is enhanced by the beautiful and colorful pictures of fish and other sea creatures that are cleverly integrated into the story. I read Aquarium on my Kindle but I imagine that an electronic device might not the optimal medium to enjoy this book and can see how the hard-copy version should provide a richer visual experience.

This is my first novel by Alaskan-born author David Vann, who does an amazing job at recreating the story of Caitlin, an earnest 12 year-old girl that lives with Sheri, her single mom who works as a docker at the local port in a subsidized housing neighborhood.

Davin Vann photo 02x094_2958_9_zpsiwc5dua0.jpg
David Vann, the author

Caitlin now on her early 30's, looks back on her life with a sense of longing and nostalgia. Reading her story helps us remember the limited perspective a child has on life and how terrifying it can be to be at the mercy of the adults that surround you and take decisions on your behalf.

At some point in the story Sheri tells her Caitlin:
The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable.

The story centers around Caitlin daily visits to the Seattle Aquarium. She goes there every day after school to wait for her mother to pick her up after her shift is over. She is fascinated by the fish and dreams of becoming an ichthyologist in Australia or Indonesia. The aquarium becomes a magical place, with all its beautiful creatures, and provides a wonderful setting that allows her to escape the harsh realities of her life, the loneliness and her mother's bitterness and anger.

Aquarium Cover photo 41FzZ1w1ycL_zpsbtw2wnd6.jpg

One of Aquarium's book covers

At times I struggled to reconcile the character of Sheri, it was frustrating to see how she could be both such a loving mother but also so abusive and cruel. If there was a weak point in the plot for me, it came from my incredulity at believing that a loving mom would used such horrible methods to punish her only child.

But I also had some sympathy for Sheri, she's overworked and exhausted and is carrying with her all the emotional baggage that comes as a result of holding so many secrets as well as her inability to forgive what was done to her.

Aquarium raises many issues, but at its core it questions how our parents and the choices they made shaped who we are and how we define ourselves.
Parents are gods,
Sheri tells Caitlin.
They make us and they destroy us. They warp the world and remake it in their own shape, and that’s the world we know forever after. It’s the only world.

Aquarium also addresses the inextricable connection between poverty and happiness, and how it can affect every aspect of a person's existence. Money does not guarantee happiness but the chronic lack of it can certainly crush anybody's mind and spirit.

It's difficult to provide more details of this story without undermining the experience for other readers, but I should finally say that although this book contain scenes that are almost unbearable ugly and shocking, it is also a story about redemption, empathy and forgiveness.

I admit to probably missing some of the symbolism and aquatic metaphors on Aquarium, of which they are plenty, but overall this book fascinated me and I couldn't stop reading it. Highly recommend it!

On a final note, I initially downloaded the audiobook version of the book but quickly realized that this was a very visual book so I decided to get the electronic version as well. I ended up listening and reading at the same time, Julia Whelan, the audiobook narrator really brings the characters in Aquarium to life. It's not an accident that Julia was chosen the 2014 audiobook narrator of the year by the editors at Audible.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,217 reviews512 followers
April 10, 2015
This is my first reading of a book by David Vann; unlikely to be the last. He drew me in slowly to this story of the dreary life of a mother and pre-teen daughter in Seattle. There are specks of brightness provided by the fish swimming in the titular Aquarium, a metaphor for so much. This is the place where Caitlin, 12 years old, escapes every day after school, bonding with all the fish, knowing their idiosyncrasies, revealing their beauty to all.

This is also a book that is pounding with emotion, visceral, powerful, having some of the strongest scenes I've read--emotional violence, anger, hatred, anguish, torment, love, unspoken and unknown feelings. Vann knows how to speak for these children, how to observe adults through their eyes.

Such a mixture of beauty and anguish, but sadly there are many for whom the anguish over-powers all. I recommend this book for the power of Vann's descriptive prose, the power of his emotional reach.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,379 reviews518 followers
March 22, 2019
This was a brutal, beautiful novel that I could not put down. Turning these pages, I stepped right into the cold, gray Seattle neighborhood. I felt the backbreaking load of Sheri's work at a container port and the respite of the aquarium for Caitlin (with the stunning fish pictures.) I loved the character of Caitlin and wanted to swoop in and protect her.

I can't think of a book I've read where ugliness and beauty are juxtaposed like they are in this novel. I believed every moment - and because of the basic goodness and strength of the characters (even damaged Sheri), I believed the ending.
Profile Image for RitaSkeeter.
690 reviews
April 6, 2015
*Possible Spoilers*

I could rate this either 2 stars or 4 stars and both would be honest ratings. It shows how conflicted I am about this book. On the the one hand, the author clearly is an exceptionally good writer. He has clear, simple prose and a main character whose pain reaches you from the page. Caitlin shows us only a snapshot in her life, which revolves around her grandfather entering her life. Whilst Caitlyn doesn't share it with us, there are hints that not all was well at home for her prior to this incident. We see Caitlin retreat into the world of fish. When at her happiest, or feeling most safe, we see her talk of sinking to the bottom of the ocean and snuggling down. The level of Caitlin's interest in fish, or more importantly her retreat into the world of fish, goes beyond a childhood interest and seems to function more as an escape for her. This becomes even more important for Caitlin when we see her mother's breakdown when faced with past traumas.

It would be easy to hate Sheri. Her treatment of Caitlin is disturbing, at least. Yet while condemning her behaviour and her treatment of Caitlin, I have empathy for this mother. She lost her childhood, her innocence, and now works in a dead-end job with no light for how to improve her lot. Sheri has had to survive alone and without care or support, and seems devoid of hope that she can make life any better for herself, or for Caitlin. In beginning chapters we see a mother who, whilst making parenting choices I wouldn't, loves her child, wants the best for her child, and is doing the very best she can for her. It sometimes felt as though the author wanted us to hate Sheri with the unrelenting negativity with which she is portrayed. This is particularly contrasted by the characterisation of the grandfather who is provided a more sympathetic showing, despite the choices he made leading to how Sheri is now. Something clicked for me when I remembered that we are seeing this through Caitlin's eyes. This is how she sees the adults in her life. She sees her mother as damaged and out of control, whereas her grandfather - whom had only ever been kind to her, despite his past demons - she sees as caring, protective, loving.

An issue I have with the book is the sexual awakening of Caitlin. Do I know that some 12 year old have sex? Yes. Do I want to read with some detail about 12 year olds being sexually intimate. No. I was very uncomfortable with this section of the storyline and felt it unnecessary. I believe the author was trying to show a couple of things. First, Caitlin's desperate search for love. Second, that the feelings released through sexual play helped Caitlin reach her 'happy' place of being n the ocean floor - a feeling that had previously only been available to her through visiting the aquarium. I believe the author could have achieved the same aims without developing this storyline in the way it was, or alternately Caitlin could have been made older. In addition, the mother and grandfather's reactions to the Caitlin's relationship were concerning for me. The mother showed a level of homophobia and prejudice that further damaged her by now fragile relationship with Caitlin. The grandfather, whilst he should be applauded for accepting Caitlin and for not shaming her, appeared to just accept the relationship. It may well be love, as he described it, but what parent wouldn't put boundaries around sexual relationships for 12 year olds in their care?

So to return to the start of this review, this book was a mixed bag for me. A book that is beautifully written, however with plot elements that are deeply troubling to me.
Profile Image for Celia.
1,140 reviews140 followers
December 14, 2018
"Aquarium" by David Vann is a novel set in 1994 Seattle. It is told from the perspective of a 32 year old Caitlan about events that happened to her in 1994 when she was 12.

Caitlan is the daughter of a single mother, Sheri, who works at the Seattle docks. They live in subsidized housing next to Boeing Field. Caitlan spends her after school time at the Seattle Aquarium, waiting for her mother to pick her up after work. The world of the aquarium is so beautiful to Caitlan, she feels more alive there than in her own impoverished home. After school one day, she meets an older, seemingly lonely, gentleman, who shares her love of the sea life found there. This old man will soon seriously change Caitlan's life.

This book is full of raw and powerful emotion. Many levels of relationship are explored and many ugly secrets are exposed. This is a coming of age story where relationships between mother- daughter AND girlfriend-girlfriend are examined. It is a story about anger, resentment and revenge, but also about love and forgiveness.

I am truly touched by this book. Not always pleasant, but certainly a book in which the reader gets involved. David Vann is a terrific writer and I plan to read more of his works.

4 stars
Profile Image for Kuszma.
2,106 reviews131 followers
June 13, 2021
Úgy hiszem, egy jó író meg tud írni olyan dolgokat is, amiket nem látott. De egy író sem tud megírni olyan dolgokat, amiket nem érzett. Az, hogy Vann ilyen szédítő erővel tudja ábrázolni a gyermekkor magánybuborékját, azt, hogy tizenkét évesnek lenni micsoda ugrás a félelmetes ismeretlenbe, és mennyire ki vagyunk szolgáltatva ekkor a felnőttek gyakran felfoghatatlan egymáshoz-viszonyulásának... nos, hogy ezt meg tudta írni, sűrű serdülőkort feltételez.

Caitlinnek jó anyja van. Sheri mindent megtesz érte, teljes erőbedobással küzd, hogy lánya ne élhesse át azt, ami vele történt. Azt, amiről nem beszélünk, mert titok. De a titkok mindig újabb titkokat szülnek. Ha hallgatunk a dolgokról, a kontrollt is elveszítjük velük kapcsolatban - holott épp a kontroll megőrzése az, ami miatt titkolózunk. Csakhogy Caithlin túl okos és túl bátor ahhoz, hogy a köré emelt falakon belül maradjon, amikor pedig kitör onnan, az próbára teszi a szeretetüket. Sherinek szembe kell néznie azzal, hogy az igazságát szereti-e jobban (amiből identitást épített magának, ami erőt adott neki a nehéz időkben), vagy a lányát.

Szerettem ebben a könyvben, hogy erős, sőt: indulatos, de végső soron mégis arról szól, hogy egymásért magunkat, a saját indulatainkat (félelmeinket, bosszúvágyunkat, haragvó és számonkérő lelkünket) kell legyőzni. És ez (talán) nem is lehetetlen. És szerettem benne a halakat is. Nagyon szép halak vannak benne, nagyon szép szavakba öltöztetve.
Profile Image for Leanne.
129 reviews283 followers
January 10, 2016
I would rate this one a 3.5 - in some ways it was enchanting and I couldn't tear my eyes away, but it was a bit too simply written and bleak to be bumped up to a 4. Still recommended, because the plot takes a few powerful and unexpected twists and turns and it's a unique concept. Plus, there are lots of pretty pictures of fish!
Profile Image for Lisa Vegan.
2,734 reviews1,200 followers
January 11, 2016
I really liked this book. Mostly, I loved Caitlin’s voice, a child’s voice, an adult who remembers childhood looking back. She’s great. She’s what makes the book special. I think the writing is beautiful, and that’s also Caitlin’s voice. I found many quotable quotes. I think the story is told with a lot of creativity. The sense of immediacy was brilliant; I did feel as though I was right there with these people. Even though I was rooting for Caitlin, I was able to feel empathy for all the characters, even as I got very angry at some of them. Powerfully told story!

I identified so, so much, even though virtually all Caitlin’s biographical details differ from my own. I was almost completely sucked in and greatly emotionally affected. It wasn’t an easy read for me, but it was thoroughly enjoyable.

The included pictures are wonderful. I couldn’t tell if they were paintings or photos but I thought they perfectly complemented the story, and added more to the atmosphere than words alone could do.

Gritty, grim, funny, mostly sad, mostly realistic, though the way the story unfolded did irk me and did keep me from giving it a possible 5 stars or at least 4 ½ stars.

Re the ending and events leading up to the ending:

I notice many people have this shelved as young adult, but my library has this shelved in the adult books section, and I agree with my library. Despite the age of the main character, I think that this is a novel written for adults, though I do think it would be fine for many readers 12+.

I do recommend this to adults and children who like child characters, people who long for more family, people who’ve had trauma, young people who are GLBT, and people who like dark and quirky coming of age stories. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to young people who are living in poverty or below middle class, or foster kids or those kids with no or little family. I thought I might when I was reading but I changed my mind.

I wanted to know more of what would happen and what had already happened that the reader was not told, but I’m also fine with some vagueness and using my own imagination about Caitlin’s adult life.
Profile Image for Doug Bradshaw.
257 reviews218 followers
February 19, 2016
What a great quick read. The writing flows well, sometimes beautiful, the descriptions and metaphors created by the exotic creatures and sometimes even the bland day-to-day fish in the aquarium, added a cozy dimension to the story, a feeling of warmth and protection, a perfect place for a lonely old man to become best friends with a lonely young girl. All of that was so appealing. And yet:

That said, a good and interesting read.
Profile Image for Mevsim Yenice.
Author 4 books955 followers
August 9, 2020
Harika başlayıp sonunda sanki her şeyden biraz bahsetmem gerek diyen klişe dizilere dönmüş gibi geldi Akvaryum. Atmosferi çok kuvvetliydi. Her şeyi kafamda canlandırabildim. Mesele bakımından zaten zor şeyleri anlatıyor, birkaç meseleyi birden gider ayak ortaya atıp hızlıca öğütmeye çalışınca, dikte edince, son kısımları biraz okuma zevkimi düşürdü.

David Vann ile ilk tanışmamızdı, etkileyici bir tarzı olduğu kesin. Masal gibi başlayan roman gerilimle bitti. Bu yönden başarılı buldum. Mutlaka Vann'ın başka kitaplarını da okuma isteğiyle, merakla bitirdim Akvaryum'u.

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