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Ethereal, emotional prose nearly salvages so-so story

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/3/2015 (2043 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Can a book be less than the sum of its parts?

Because that about sizes up David Vann's patchy, incoherent and gorgeous novel Aquarium -- a book about a young girl whose close relationship with her mother turns twisted.

Aquarium is Vann's seventh book, following a string of novels, non-fiction titles and the widely acclaimed novella and story collection Legend of a Suicide. His prose is unmistakeably beautiful and simple. Ethereal sentences leap off the page that are as stunningly dreamy and encased as a creature from the book's namesake.

Vann's plot, similarly without mistake, never makes any emotional sense, and the dramatic scenes are ham-fisted, jerky and the opposite of harrowing.

Aquarium is told from the view of Caitlin, a quiet and intelligent 12-year-old with no family or friends save her hard-working mother, Sheri. Caitlin's love is fish -- she spends every day at the aquarium after school until Sheri can pick her up.

Her mother is big and strong, works in the container port, and her life is her child. Sheri is good to her daughter but also refuses to talk about her past -- why she has no family, why Caitlin has no father, or really about anything at all.

When a strange old man from Sheri's past shows up at the aquarium and befriends Caitlin, Sheri snaps. Unhinged by his presence, she lashes out against the old man and finally tours Caitlin through the visceral horrors of her old life, becoming violent and cruel to Caitlin while doing so.

But the Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation of Sheri never rings emotionally true, nor does Caitlin's relentless desire to get closer to the old man -- who promises her a family -- ever feel real on the page, as sensible as it sounds in synopsis. Tragedy and sadness engulf the characters, but the effect on the reader is staid.

Character archetypes are a major culprit here. Caitlin falls into the cliché of the smart, quiet kid who sounds like an adult (that she is 12 years old is repeated ad nauseam throughout the book, as if desperate to make you believe such a thing), and Sheri starts out as the quintessential responsibly exhausted single mother.

Certainly neither starts out with much in the way of flaws or edges or uniquenesses (with the exception of Caitlin's feelings about fish, which read as genuine and lovely). So when tragedy strikes, it's difficult to feel for characters who, while likable, are also somewhat two-dimensional.

As far as secondary characters go, the old man seeking forgiveness for his sins is also entirely forgettable (his trauma? War experiences, natch), as is the girl Caitlin falls in love with.

Perhaps this sounds like a mediocre book. But then there are also about a hundred paragraphs like this:

"Sleep, she said. Sleep while you can. Forget where you are and forget the mountain of days. Each one enormous, lost in some forest that never ends, but then the edge will fold back and you'll walk on what was the sky and is now only another forest floor, another layer, and you can feel the weight of hundreds of these layers above you. Like an ant climbing tunnel after tunnel in darkness and the mountain never ends."

In the end, the book is worth buying for its prose, and not its story. Perhaps its title is indeed the best metaphor for Aquarium: An inadequate stand-in for a more complex world, yet mysterious and gorgeous all the same.


Casey Plett is the author of the short-story collection A Safe Girl To Love.


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Updated on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at 8:40 AM CDT: Formatting.

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