cover image Aquarium


David Vann. Atlantic Monthly, $24 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2352-7

Vann’s (Legend of a Suicide) elegantly written, emotionally intense novel juxtaposes the contained world of undersea creatures with the life of a family forced beyond its self-protective isolation. In 1994, 12-year-old Caitlin Thompson and her sole parent, Sheri, live in Seattle, where Sheri works at the docks. After school closes each day, Caitlin waits for her mother at the Seattle Aquarium, studying the bizarre fish she loves. When she meets an elderly man there, a friendship develops. Suspicious, Sheri engineers an encounter with the man, only to realize that he is her father; when Sheri was 14, he left her alone to care for her dying mother. Caitlin embraces the warmer, less-constricted life her grandfather offers, but Sheri refuses to forgive, going to monstrous lengths to show her daughter the humiliations she suffered after her father’s abandonment. The conflict between mother and daughter deepens as Caitlin forms another tender new bond, this one with her schoolmate Shalini. Though Sheri’s toxic blame of her father feels improbably extreme at times, it’s more than made up for by Caitlin’s emotional depth and nimble imagination. Through her wise and dreamy vision, Vann crafts a moving exploration of the boundaries we draw around ourselves to stay safe and unchanged. (Mar.)