Book Review: The Girl Aquarium by Jen Campbell

The Girl Aquarium by Jen Campbell is an enchanting collection of poetry exploring bodies and disfigurement, girlhood/womanhood/motherhood, the male gaze, and relationships.

If you’re familiar with Jen Campbell from booktube, you won’t be surprised that The Girl Aquarium is quintessentially “Jen”: the style is whimsical and eerie and dreamlike, with motifs of the sea, the body, and fairytale characters lurking between lines.

The reader is within the aquarium of the book, slowly walking past tanks of colourful poems, watching each one flutter and dart around the page, coming up for air; what’s hiding there? You could lose yourself staring into Campbell’s works.

 

There is a lot to unpack from these poems. Having watched Jen on YouTube writing and editing, I knew that there is a lot of subtext and things often have multiple meanings.

Some poems read quite straight-forward at first, but I found myself re-reading, second-guessing some poetic nuances, following the motifs, the threads, and openly annotating. It was such an enjoyable reading experience.

Because The Girl Aquarium authentically circles around the same motifs, the book really does feel like holistic collection. The addition of a character, Caitlin, who surfaces in more than one poem, gives the collection a narrative dimension.

There are a handful of poems written in a Northern England/Geordie dialect. By writing these phonetically, these poems felt quite personal, almost whispered like a secret you don’t quite understand. Google helped with deciphering some of the more difficult phrasing, for example “yem” being “home”.

The Geordie poems were interesting, but I feel like I didn’t get the most out of reading them myself, whereas hearing them read aloud (for example, Jen Campbell reading ‘Netted’ here) is very beautiful. Overall they weren’t my favourites.

It’s hard to believe that this is Campbell’s first published book of poetry because it’s a stellar collection, at once contemporary and political and woke but simultaneously mythical and nostalgic and bizarre.

I look forward to re-reading The Girl Aquarium, and I can’t wait to see what creative works Campbell comes out with next. After The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night (video review here) and now this, she’s an auto-buy author for me!

 

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