Vann, whose remarkable novels evoke worlds where violence and revenge seem the inevitable outcome of human relationships, offers here a kind of modern fairy tale, one laced with treachery and trials and the greatest demon of all to battle, the past.
It's the early 1990s, and 12-year-old Caitlin splits her days between the dullness of school and the magic of the Seattle Aquarium. Caitlin spends every afternoon there, using it as de facto child care, until her mother, Sheri, returns from her job at the docks. The aquarium is peaceful and contains possibilities; it's a place where her mother's anger has no power. She meets an old man there and the two walk from one exhibit to the next, each day studying a fish, considering its place in the world, their places in the world, building a gentle friendship (the novel is filled with photographs of these fish). When Sheri finds out about their relationship, she calls the police to ambush a pedophile but discovers something she deems far worse—her own estranged father, Caitlin's grandfather. His abandonment of his family 19 years earlier transformed Sheri from an innocent girl to a woman twisted by rage. He left his wife dying of cancer, penniless in a shack with 14-year-old Sheri as sole caretaker. In a harrowing series of scenes, Sheri forces Caitlin to play make-believe; Sheri pretends to be her own dying mother while Caitlin drags her shit-smeared body around the apartment as they re-enact Sheri's early life. Unlike Vann's other novels, which exist in a closed system of violence and despair, this story offers redemption. Like all good heroines who make their ways out of the woods, Caitlin is clever and brave and convinces Sheri that the old man will sacrifice anything for forgiveness, to conquer the spell of the past.
Vann's novels are striking, uncompromising portraits of American life; here is another exceptional example.