Yaara She­hori; Todd Hasak-Lowy, trans.

  • Review
By – April 12, 2021

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.

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