‘Aquarium’ by David Vann – A Unique Seattle Story

‘Aquarium’ by David Vann    (2015) – 266 pages      Grade: B+


Every afternoon twelve-year-old Kaitlin must spend several lonely hours at the Seattle Aquarium after school waiting for her mother to get out of work and take her home.

“It was a fish so ugly it didn’t seem like a fish at all.”

Kaitlin spends so much time in the Aquarium and is so fascinated, she wants to become an ichthyologist when she grows up.  There is an old man who also spends a lot of time at the aquarium, and Kaitlin begins to discuss the various fish and other sea animals they see with him.  One day the old man puts his arms around Kaitlin.  Her mother finds out about this, and brings in the Seattle police to nab this suspected pervert.

That is how the story of  ‘Aquarium’ begins.  I will not elaborate any further.  Let us just say that the ultimate story is nothing like you would expect it to be up to this point.

In the version of the novel I read, there are pictures of sea animals spread throughout the text.  However this is no graphic novel; the pictures are there to enhance the theme of the novel which I take to be that just like the fish in the aquarium, we humans are stuck in our own tanks.  Excuse me for the fish metaphor, but ‘Aquarium’ is filled with fish metaphors, and if you are going to read this novel, you better get used to them.

I admired the simple unique plot in ‘Aquarium’.  In my many years of novel reading, I have never encountered a plot that is even remotely similar to this one.  The plot is in the here and now and does not rely on nostalgia at all.  It is the girl telling this family story from 1994 looking back today after she has grown up.

There are five well-drawn characters in ‘Aquarium’.  With a few simple strokes, David Vann has invested each of the characters with his or her own personality.  But don’t expect all five of these people to be nice and pleasant, because at least one of these characters has a foul personality, perhaps with good reason.  Once again, it is not the character one would have expected to be the bad one.

There are scenes of violence and personal degradation in ‘Aquarium’, but they are not at all stereotypical and, again, not what you would expect.

So, bottom line, if you want to read a novel that defies expectations and tells a peculiar intense family story, read ‘Aquarium’.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I discovered this book through the Bookworkm podcast. Vann seems like an interesting writer (based on that podcast episode), and your review strengthens my resolve to find a copy of this book. Thanks!


    • Hi Angus,
      I believe you will find that ‘Aquarium’ is well worth the time spent. It is a quick read that tells an unexpected story.


  2. Posted by Annabel (gaskella) on April 30, 2015 at 3:24 PM

    I’ve not read David Vann yet… it seems he likes dark themes – but I do like the sound of this book a lot, your review is most intriguing.


    • Hi Annabel,
      Yes, dark themes – I wish I’d thought of that term before I wrote the review. ‘Aquarium’ definitely has a dark theme, not what you would expect with a 12 year old girl protagonist. But the dark theme in this book is really different.


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