Caitlin, a rather peculiar 12 year-old living with her single mother in Seattle, keeps company with the fishes at her local aquarium. Her mother, loving and determined, works long hours as a laborer just for the two of them to live paycheck-to-paycheck. She hopes that one day they’ll be able to “get ahead” but, until then, they’re trapped in their cramped apartment next to a flight path on the wrong side of town. Though they’re living in this impoverished state, the bond the two share helps keep them afloat. They truly are best friends. With a dark past that she avoids mentioning, Sheri, Caitlin’s mom, works hard to shape a better future for her daughter.
The aquarium becomes Caitlin’s special after-school spot while waiting for her mother to pick her up. Here, she’s able to escape from the loneliness she feels, without close friends or a fatherly figure. The aquarium is where she truly feels at peace, at home.
The novel begins on a light note, immersing the reader in colorful descriptions and illustrations of the fish Caitlin visits regularly. The details are concise and telling, allowing for readers to easily imagine what exactly the narrator is experiencing herself. It makes you want to visit your nearest aquarium in hopes that you’re able to feel even a fraction of the amount of wonder and delight that Caitlin does. Incredibly bright and intelligent, her fish-based knowledge is surprising but refreshing as she mozies from tank to tank, pressing her face against the glass, wishing she could grow gills and jump into the water with her scaly companions. She watches them longingly, wondering when she will find her own place in the world. Love, acceptance, and finding where you belong are key factors which drive Caitlin during her endeavors.
However, as time goes on, the true nature of the novel floats to the surface, revealing secrets from within its depths. Soon, Caitlin is accompanied at the aquarium by a fellow patron, an older man, whom she quickly befriends. The two have a surprising initial connection that leaves readers to wonder whether this meeting was genuinely random or completely calculated. Caitlin and the old man engage in thoughtful discussion day after day pertaining to the fish but, somehow, relating their conversations back to a deeper meaning. They project their thoughts considering their own world onto the blank faces of the aquarium inhabitants in hopes of discovering some kind of deeper meaning or understanding of themselves. The unlikely pair learn from the fish and, in turn, from each other. One day in particular raises complications in their thought-to-be platonic relationship.
When Caitlin’s mother learns about her daughter’s new friend, their comfortable mother-daughter relationship threatens to fall to pieces. The old man’s true identity is uncovered and Caitlin is forced from the safety and consolance the aquarium provides and is thrusted into the human world. There, she must face reality without the protection of tank walls. The parable-like quality of the text illustrates a young narrator caught up in their own existence, without even fully being able to interpret what this means.
As an adult, Caitlin recalls this time during her youth, retelling her experiences as she draws on past emotions in pursuit of piecing together her current life. This nostalgic tidal wave pushes Caitlin to explore what it was about growing up that turned her into the broken person she has become. It’s easy to see how much you’re capable of taking away from your youth and how that has the potential to benefit you in the future (whether you realize it or not).
Parallels are drawn between real, human life and the life of those organisms in the aquarium. Life is easier for Caitlin when she thinks of life, past and present, as an aquarium, complete with all of the aquatic inner workings, ecosystems, and dangers. Vann pushes readers to delve into the relationship between human beings and nature and how we may draw positive energy from this, unfortunately, for some people, untouched area of our lives.
This is a story about family, forgiveness, empathy, and, ultimately, exploring the human condition. Are we able to fix what has been broken? Can unforgivable acts be forgiven? Are families able to be put back together? Vann’s use of diction and perspective gives readers a sense of belonging as you’re sucked into the novel’s metaphorical current. Aquarium takes us on a voyage filled with plenty of rough seas and moments of breathtaking clarity.