Aquarium by David Vann (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015. 272 pp)

David Vann’s work has earned numerous awards and has been featured in the Atlantic Monthly, The Guardian, and McSweeey’s, among others. He is a former Guggenheim fellow, National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Wallace Stegner fellow, and John L’Heureux fellow. He has earned degrees from Stanford and Cornell and currently teaches as a professor at the University of Warwick.

A Roof over Your Head

What would you do to put a roof over your child’s head? The prospect of passing on a legacy motivates many to great heights. But what about those people who never had a chance to get the kind of education and experience needed to provide for a family comfortably? What if the only work available kills you slowly with deadening tasks and long hours away from the ones you love?

David Vann offers the aquarium as a metaphor for the coming-of-age story of the young Caitlin. Living in Seattle with her single mother, Caitlin visits the aquarium after school every day. The fish calm her and she possesses a passion for the finer details of the aquatic life.

Long Shifts with Minimum Pay

While there’s much love at home, Caitlin and her mother struggle at the edge of poverty. Without any family around, Sheri, Caitlin’s mother, works long shifts at the dock with minimum pay.

“My mother worked in the container port, basic labor. She wore heavy work boots, brown Carhartt overalls, a flannel shirt, her hair back in a ponytail. But she was starting to do some rigging of cranes and hoped someday to be a crane operator. They made a lot of money, sometimes over a hundred thousand. We’d be rich” (7).

For this reason, Caitlin arrives at school long before the other kids, sitting in the dark hallway with only a janitor as company. And, after school, she has the aquarium.

Respite at the Aquarium

While observing these species, Caitlin recognizes the frequent visitors of the aquarium. And one day, an old man sidles up to her at a tank to strike up a conversation. This conversation manufactures a budding friendship that threatens the fabric of her relationship with her mom, especially with all the child protective rules she’s breaking.

Can Caitlin uncover a better life for herself through her passion for fish? Is there a way to pull yourself up from the poverty line? These are the areas David Vann explores in Aquarium.

Aquarium as Metaphor

A fan of the metaphor, Vann often includes aquatic references in Caitlin’s daily life. With writerly precision and creative flair, Vann brings Caitlin’s inner world to life.

“I had my hands up under her armpits and my feet slid under her thighs, locked on. No frogfish ever gripped a rock as tightly. This apartment our own aquarium” (9).

Vann expertly weaves the tension of life many marginalized people feel. The reader sits in awe at the necessary neglect Caitlin receives just so her mother can put food on the table. The drab Seattle streets drenched in months of rain present the setting where a family just never seems like it can get ahead.

I hope to never know what it would be like to work as hard as you can and still not be able to provide for your family. Nevertheless, David Vann’s Aquarium offers a touching look at the family dynamics of a poor Seattle family. Highly recommended.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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