David Vann has created the most vivid and heartbreakingly relatable narrator I've read in years, and he does it in less than 300 pages. It may be short, but Aquarium is an absolute stunner.
In adolescence trouble can arise without warning, suddenly swamping normal life under its waves. Caitlin, at twelve, floats through her days on a raft of routine: she's always the first to school because her mom has to get to work, and after classes are over she walks to the aquarium to while away the hours until quitting time. Caitlin doesn't mind the wait; she loves fish and dreams of one day becoming an ichthyologist so she can study all her favorite species to her heart's content.
At the aquarium she befriends an old man who shows up there every afternoon just like she does. Mostly they talk about the various fish as they watch them float and hover through the tanks. (Added bonus: the book includes pictures of the fish they discuss.) Caitlin isn't afraid of the old man and believes his intentions are pure, but when her mother finds out about him, her discovery sets in motion a violent flood of painful memories that will change their family forever.
That's all the backstory I want to provide. Some books really are better the less you know going in. I will say that thematically this book reminds me of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, another book I read recently and loved. Both books expose the pain that comes from not telling your story to the people who matter most, and that secrets and their eventual revelation can tear a family apart at the seams. Caitlin's raw, honest reflections on a pivotal moment in her adolescent life broke my heart in the best possible way.
Sometimes we don't need a thousand pages to tell a good story. Aquarium is compact and spare, and the more powerful for it. Don't miss this one.
With regards to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for the advance copy. On sale March 3.