Novel Approach: ‘Aquarium’ explores storytelling and disabilities with lyrical prose

“My father spoke with his hands. He was deaf. His voice was in his hands. And his hands contained his memories.” —Myron Uhlberg

Everyone has a story, but how we convey our stories can be just as important as the story itself. Our latest read tells the story of two deaf sisters trying to find the best way for them to each tell their story.

Aquarium by Yaara Shehori

In her lyrical debut novel, Yaara Shehori tells the story of a pair of deaf sisters who grow up in an unconventional household with deaf parents and shun those in the full-hearing society.

In their home, not being able to hear isn’t a disability, but rather just another way of life. In an effort to keep their daughters Lili and Dori from falling prey to the hearing world, Anna and Alex choose to homeschool their children, further isolating them from the rest of the world.

As social services increasingly try to interfere with their lives, the family leaves its apartment in favor of starting a new life on a rural farm. That draws other people with disabilities to Alex and his prophet-like perspectives on life.

When a discovery forces a wedge between the two sisters, they find themselves both pushed into the hearing world without the camaraderie of their sisterhood.

Shehori’s novel examines how stories are not only told, but how they are heard, as Lili and Dori fiercely share their observations of the world and how they have allowed their disability to shape their lives. This coming of age story poses questions about family, community and how disabilities are perceived.

From the book jacket....

Sisters Lili and Dori Ackerman are deaf. Their parents—beautiful, despondent Anna; fearsome and admired Alex—are deaf, too. Alex, a scrap metal collector and sometime prophet, opposes any attempt to integrate with the hearing; to escape their destructive influence, the girls are educated at home. Deafness is no disability, their father says, but an alternative way of life, preferable by far to that of the strident, hypocritical hearing.

Living in a universe of their own creation, feared by and disdainful of the other children on their block, Lili and Dori grow up semi-feral. Lili writes down everything that happens—just the facts. And Dori, the reader, follows her older sister wherever she goes. United against a hostile and alien world, the girls and their parents watch the hearing like they would fish in an aquarium.

But when the hearing intrude and a devastating secret is revealed, the cracks that begin to form in the sisters’ world will have consequences that span the rest of their lives. Separated from the family that ingrained in them a sense of uniqueness and alienation, Lili and Dori must relearn how to live, and how to tell their own stories.

If you enjoy…

Readers who enjoy Shehori’s lyrical writing might also enjoy reading Maggie O'Farrell's blistering portrayal of a family suffering from the repercussions of grief in “Hamnet.”