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Aquarium by David Vann

 David Vann is an internationally acclaimed author whose oeuvre has garnered fifteen awards, including best foreign novel in France and Spain. His book have been on 75 Best Books of the Year lists in 12 countries.

Aquarium is a coming-of-age story told through the eyes of a 12-year old girl. Caitlin is a sensitive and resilient child for whom the local aquarium becomes both sanctuary and her place for scientific exploration. Her environment is bleak. She lives surrounded by factories and concrete. Only a few trees line the subsidized development where she lives with her mother, Sheri, a dock worker at a container port who works long hours. As a result, Caitlin must fend for herself and she makes the aquarium her after-school destination. It is there that she meets a mysterious old man who shares her love of fishes and whose past nearly shatters her life.

Caitlin is a very lonely child who feels safest in the aquarium's cave-like atmosphere that mimics the ocean. She is comforted by the anonymity the darkness gives her; the uniqueness of the fish mirrors her own sense of being different. The fish, caged as they are, also mirror her own feeling of entrapment.

What distinguishes this book from other bildungsromans is that it builds on the many personal secrets of its characters. Sheri never discusses her painful childhood with Caitlin but it soon becomes clear that it has damaged her badly. Just how badly drives the novel and is the foundation of the co-dependency she and her daughter share.

Aquarium is a spellbinding novel that analyses the lasting impact of childhood trauma. Ultimately, it is a redemptive work that explores the limits of love and the healing aspect of forgiveness. Its crystalline prose and three dimensional characters make this book a must-read for everyone--young adults included.

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