In her hauntingly surreal debut novel translated from the Hebrew, Yaara Shehori questions what it means to hear when hearing is a perpetual source of silence and othering. Aquarium is told through the divergent narratives of two deaf sisters, Dori and Lili, interlaced with other perspectives and storytelling modes.
The novel unravels around the subversive psyche of Dori, whose inner landscape continually defies the written word as a binary means for ordering the universe. Dori’s consciousness reveals the arbitrariness of relying on the sounds of words to communicate — in Dori’s eyes, speaking is no more than mouths moving to form shapes, like those of fish behind aquarium glass. Dori also conceives of time not as linear or easily measured, but rather as something epic and eternal, enshrouded in myth.
After Dori is taken away by social services and sent to a reformatory, Lili searches for a story to fill her sister’s sudden absence. Yet in trying to fit a narrative within the bounds of a realist landscape, she also severs the bond she had to her other half — Dori, who had always promised her the timelessness of childhood, even as the two were ridiculed, chastised, and excluded. When the old tree that they used to spend their days climbing is cut down, so is Dori’s influence over Lili’s imagination. What follows is a devastating portrait of Lili’s lost connection to her original language. Without Dori, she enters “a period in which thought [recedes from her] like a cloud dumping its rain in another place.” She begins to “hear” sound as an illusion, and she has no other choice but to live the rest of her life according to heard expressions of lived experience, separate from her sister’s denied consciousness. Although Lili writes Dori letters, she is repeatedly confronted by the gap between memory and the story she attempts to record in the present. As a result, memory becomes all the more problematic and unreliable as a primary storytelling vehicle, in selectively occluding what might be deemed ugly, despicable, or shameful in the interest of romanticizing the past — particularly a past that fails to conform to societal standards.
Yet just as Lili’s journey poses the continual threat of self-erasure, Dori’s narrative persists in the form of interludes that give voice to her bravery and resilience. Ironically, Dori is drawn back to the society that formerly disowned her as a sign language interpreter for her father’s rural utopia. Nevertheless, her return also makes space for the oppressed truths of her mother story, signaling time as cyclical, as a continuum of memory refracted and “duplicated in a hall of mirrors.” When two mechanical birds from the sisters’ childhood are unearthed — as if out of the novel’s void of suppressed storytelling—Aquarium ultimately offers a fearless translation of the elusiveness of human experience, illuminating those rare moments of being that escape our preconception of beauty, even if they can’t be clearly understood the instant they pass through us.
Jaclyn Gilbert earned her B.A. at Yale and her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Tin House, Lit Hub, Long Reads, Post Road Magazine, and elsewhere. Late Air her first novel, released from Little A last November.