Review: Goldfish Tears, by Curtis Ackie

>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

She approaches it tentatively; The Bath of Mary, as he has chosen to call it, is more a cluster of large apparatus than a machine. It consists of a small stone doorway for her to stand in, with a series of metal hooks at the back; in truth, it looks rather menacing. She notices a collection of symbols sandblasted into the stone framework of the door, but only recognizes a few; a pentacle, a wheel of some sort, and what looks like a peacock tail feather. Resting on a stone platter, attached to the main apparatus through a collection of metal pipes there sits a triumvirate of crucibles which decrease in size the further they are from his creation. Stepping closer, Henrietta runs her hands along the framework, paying special attention to the glass tubes threaded in and out of the stone. She trusts him, but is apprehensive of stepping into his formidable contraption; she finds the hooks especially off-putting, but he urges her not to be intimidated. They are there to straighten out her posture, but an assortment of concoctions she is to drink beforehand will make sure there is no pain.

***

Goldfish Tears, Curtis Ackie’s first collection of short fiction, is an oddly likable, sparsely connected mosaic of magical realism-based tales. Fourteen stories in all, Ackie’s short, sometimes flash fiction-length narratives share a common, at-a-distance vibe—poetic language aplenty, but lacking true character development.

The tales included in Goldfish Tears vary quite a bit in terms of both tone and quality; “The Bath of Mary”, “Birthmark Like a Scar”, and “Oh, Blue Hag” are the collection’s stand-out entries, while “The Culpable Pair” and the final tale, “Carnival Evening”, fall unfortunately flat. Additionally, “Birthmark Like a Scar” and “Impatience” have a harshness to them, a tenacity of language and emotion that feels strangely juxtaposed when placed in the same collection as “Luminary Luna Dairy”, which presents an almost childlike tale of worker’s dissatisfaction mining cheese on the surface of the moon for the ungrateful blue world below.

Ackie’s writing is intelligent, but as previously mentioned, the stories, for the most part, lack strong identifiable characters and interesting, illustrative dialogue; instead they trade their worth on ideas and curiosities made real. A strong theme running throughout several stories—“The Bath of Mary”, “Shadowplay”, and “Oh, Blue Hag”—has to do with the impact and/or gaze of the “other”; shadows, twins, and reflections are used liberally as stand-ins for themes of body/life dissatisfaction, depression, and an unwillingness to step out of one’s comfort zone and let their other half assume control. From the story “Oh, Blue Hag”:

The shopping trip goes well, Egon is saddened when it comes to an end. He heads home with his bags, mournful but determined that his plan will work. He has decided to exchange his lacklustre life for hers, at least for a short time; if she doesn’t go for it he will just have to force it on her, after all it is unfair that she should get more joy out of life than him.

Goldfish Tears is a self-published collection, and as such has several editorial and structural problems. Aside from run-on sentences and minor grammatical and spelling mistakes, I found myself tripping far too often on single-syllable words broken up and hyphenated onto two lines—a giant, frustrating no-no. The illustrations from Lorena Matic are a lovely touch and go a surprisingly long way to adding a much needed sense of character to stories decidedly trim with description and identifiable traits and/or idiosyncrasies.

Grammatical issues aside, the only story I felt simply didn’t measure up to the rest of the collection was the aforementioned “The Culpable Pair”, which feels, frankly, like a collection of ideas and archetypes that never once feel as if they come together—hammered home, unfortunately, by the stark, inorganic transitions as the story moves between each character. That being said, one not-so-great story does not do irreparable damage to the rest of the collection.

There’s enough of interest to recommend Goldfish Tears to short fiction aficionados who also happen to share a love for magical realism; though its structural and editorial issues, and its lack of vivid characters, limit this title’s reach.

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