Aquarium: A Novel
- By Yaara Shehori; translated by Todd Hasak-Lowy
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Gisèle Lewis
- April 21, 2021
A reclusive deaf family grapples with ableism, isolation, and a life-altering secret.
“Lili and Dori. A light head next to a dark one. Curls and braids. Red mixed with brown. Four narrow eyes. The older has a girl’s name and her sister a name they give to boys. At home, they called them Big and Little, a stretched-out hand signaling the height of the taller one and then the height of her sister…They were the disabled girls.”
So begins Aquarium, Israeli author Yaara Shehori’s third book, and the first to be published in English (after winning, in 2017, the Bernstein Prize for best original Hebrew-language novel). It tells the story of Dori and Lili Ackerman, who live with their parents, Alex and Anna. All four are deaf and largely nonverbal, attributes their neighbors label as defects. In self-imposed seclusion, Anna homeschools the girls until, one day, authorities somehow learn that Dori can hear and speak.
Deeming her neglected, they abruptly remove her from her home and place her in a boarding school for reeducation. Years later, as the now-estranged sisters meander different life paths, Dori is left to figure out how “the establishment” learned of her secret and to grapple with the role deafness plays in her identity.
Author Shehori is a poet, and her voice — lyrical, introspective, and unconventional — sets Aquarium squarely in the literary genre. The book’s limited dialogue gives the prose a muted, somewhat dreamy effect, while references to mythology and biblical symbolism enrich the text. As indicated by the book’s title, water metaphors abound: Mermaids sing with their forbidden voices to Odysseus’ ear-plugged crew or sacrifice their speech so humans will welcome them.
The titular aquarium itself serves a double meaning. From their home, the Ackermans watch an insensitive world pass by and purposely avoid its din. Meanwhile, society points and stares at the family members as if they are colorful oddities cordoned off from the wider world. “They [are] girls, after all, not circus animals,” Alex tells someone ogling his daughters’ sign language.
Though not deaf herself, Shehori skillfully portrays the Ackermans’ reliance on sight and touch to communicate. A sewing machine does not whir but vibrates through the floor, sensed by the girls’ feet. “Ari’s hands lay dead on his knees” describes the interpretation of a relative’s unresponsiveness. Characters “see” the answers to questions rather than hear them.
The novel’s imagery is memorable, too, such as when the sisters dirty their clothes while scrambling up a tree to avoid neighbor children’s taunts, or when Lili stands still during art class as fellow students apply papier mâché to her legs.
The author never explicitly calls out ableism, but it plagues the Ackermans from the start. Following the family’s move to a more rural, Eden-like setting, Alex frames himself as a quasi-mystic leader, a guru who gathers quirky devotees seeking relief from sensory overload. He and other proudly deaf characters question whether the hearing are really the lucky ones or if, in fact, they suffer from a debilitating reliance on sound.
Throughout the novel, the reader must wade through many phases of the characters’ lives — as well as Dori’s and Lili’s numerous wry, philosophical, and even hallucinatory inner thoughts — before reaching a nugget of revelation on the final page. Although the pace doesn’t drag, the narrative is often bogged down by details that have little bearing on the plot. And while the withholding of a major turning-point scene and subsequent court battle may heighten a reader’s curiosity, it’s just as likely to feel frustrating.
Still, Yaara Shehori is a talented author who has crafted a nuanced, worthy novel. Textured and vivid, Aquarium offers a profound exploration of hearing — both its presence and its absence — and its impact on a family, on society, and on ourselves.
A decade-long resident of Florida, Gisèle Lewis writes about art, our relationships with memories, and volunteering with a local refugee community. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Baltimore Review, Saw Palm, Pirene’s Fountain, and other places. Her interviews with women readers appear at giselelewis.com.