Zibby Oneal Joyce Milton - Essay

Joyce Milton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At 13, Carrie [in "The Language of Goldfish"] is old enough to know that the "magic island" in the pond behind her house is really just a pile of moss-covered stones and that the goldfish she summons by whistling across the surface of the pond's waters don't really understand her private language. Her older sister, who once shared these fantasies, long ago dismissed them as kid stuff, but Carrie, overwhelmed by the changes going on inside her own body and by the messy world of sexuality and moral uncertainty she sees ahead, desperately hangs on to childhood.

"The Language of Goldfish," Zibby Oneal's first novel for young adults, chronicles Carrie's emotional breakdown and attempted suicide. This subject matter is bound to attract some attention for its own sake, but it would be a mistake to include this novel in the wave of pop-sociological fiction about teenage trauma. Certainly, its profile of an achieving daughter of a well-to-do family, panicked at the thought of competing socially with her more outgoing sister, would be recognizable to any clinician. And Carrie's attempts, as an art student, to translate her anxiety into studies of line and movement are entirely believable. For the most part, however, the people and events in Carrie's life are a bit flat and a bit hazy around the edges, which is entirely how she perceives them. In contrast, her inner turmoil—even during her dizzy spells when reality "slips sideways"—is conveyed in language that is poetic and precise.

No doubt many young readers will be drawn to this story because it promises to show "what it's like to go crazy." In fact, this promise is fulfilled, largely because the author has resisted the temptation to use Carrie's disordered thoughts as a vehicle for self-indulgent writing. But most readers will also see a good deal of themselves in Carrie. Her search for the magic island, which she can see in her imagination but no longer recognizes in reality, is a resonant metaphor for the lost illusions of childhood. This is a loss that sentimental people bemoan, but Mrs. Oneal reminds us that pretending is the work of childhood—and often very hard work at that. (pp. 52, 65)

Joyce Milton, in a review of "The Language of Goldfish," in The New York Times Book Review, April 27, 1980, pp. 52, 65.