Aquariums, by J.D. Kurtness, translated by Pablo Strauss

Whales, researchers, and colourful ancestors play key roles in Aquariums, a novel by J.D. Kurtness. Aquariums follows the story of protagonist Émeraude Pic, a biologist who creates habitats for specimens of endangered species.

Aquariums flips between third-person accounts of significant individuals, including some of Émeraude’s ancestors, and Émeraude’s own first-person musings about the past, the present, and future. Also included are snippets about living creatures, including a shark and a matriarch whale. Key episodes from Émeraude’s early life are portrayed, including a summer stay with her male cousins, her misadventures at boarding school, and her connection with a young man named Henri, who is allergic to sunlight. Émeraude becomes a biology researcher, with one of her early projects being recreating an environment for endangered corals. She is chosen to become a member of a research team on an international mission to complete a census of Arctic marine species.

“The story is told with an appreciation for life’s ironies and coincidences.”

The story is told with an appreciation for life’s ironies and coincidences. Among Émeraude’s forebears are a baby left in a basket at a church in 1816, an indigenous woman who is an outcast from her community, a deserter, a baker, and a musical prodigy. The manner in which individuals’ lives entangle and disentangle underscores the serendipity that often underlies life’s events.

Aquariums includes a fair degree of wry humour. For example, during her stay with her cousins, Émeraude is prompted to observe: “Before I came here, I held certain naive beliefs. Cereal is only for breakfast. You can’t drink strawberry soda in the morning. Wrong and wrong again!” (p. 16) The satire becomes more biting when the protagonist contemplates the fate of the planet, and the seeming futility of her task of recreating environments to house endangered species:

“There’s always been a lag between key events and my responses; it’s the story of my life. I’m a collector of funeral urns, samples, approximate reconstructions, regrets. My job is to preserve the remains after the tombs have been pillaged. I always show up just in time for the funeral.” (p. 160)

Because of Émeraude’s research focus, the ocean is a primary player in the novel. To that end, it’s not surprising that Kurtness builds in facts about marine life ranging from whales and sharks to smaller and less significant creatures. Humanity’s callous treatment of other species is illustrated, particularly in accounts related to whaling. In the early going, a whaling vessel comes ashore hauling rotting carcasses that are too deteriorated to process. At another juncture, a matriarch whale swims up to the site of a whaling expedition:

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“The water ran red. Though she had escaped many a bloody hunt, she had never seen so much blood, so many dead whales in a single spot . . . The factory ship slowly hoisted the carcasses into its hull. For lack of space, the whalers left behind almost half the day’s kill. Someone had been trigger-happy on the harpoon gun.” (p. 71)

At the time the novel is set, the world’s human population is being decimated by a mutated rabies virus, the Arctic is dying, and much of the natural world has been laid waste. Despite grim moments, there are uplifting ones as well. In the end, Émeraude and her fellow researchers continue their work while the rest of the world seems to be falling apart, leaving us with a final message: even when things seem hopeless, we owe it to ourselves, and the planet, to do what we can.


About the Author

J.D. Kurtness won the Indigenous Voices Award for French Prose in 2018 for Of Vengeance. She lives in Montreal.

Pablo Strauss has translated many works of Quebec fiction into English. He grew up in Victoria, B.C., and has lived in Quebec City for fifteen years.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Rare Machines (March 1 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 176 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1459747763
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1459747760

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