Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan

This is not an easy book to understand or to review. It does not fit into any known genre, there is no mystery in the normal sense; while there are murders, we know who committed them. Is it a love story? Not at all, but the book blurb thinks so. It is an historical novel, but more of a surrealistic history of a penal settlement, overlaid with humour and irony.

The story is told by a felon, Billy Gould who portrays himself as nothing more than a lying rascal, yet he reveals himself in his own words to be educated and moral. If you have read James Joyce’s Ulysses, then you might have something to compare this novel with, but few people have actually read Ulysses, (apart from the final section) so there is not much help there. But if you have, then there are definite similarities in the word play, the metaphors, the allusions, the irony.

Gould’s Book of Fish — should you read it — will probably be the most bizarre book you will read in the next 10 years. Is it worthwhile you ask. Yes, it is worth the effort, because it is an interesting, unusual, poetic, mysterious, amusing, ironic, colourful, novel.

It is set in Tasmania, Australia, around the year 1820 onwards. More precisely, it is set mostly on the tiny penal settlement of Sarah Island. A place where I have visited, although there is precious little left on the island, some bricks that were part of the oven, a ruined building, but almost no evidence. You could walk all over the island and find almost nothing of historical interest.

But according to Billy Gould, a forger, a painter of fish, a man connected with the Commandant, there was a scheme to build the remote, tiny island, into a cosmopolitan city to rival London, complete with a railway; none of which happened in the novel — or real life.
The characters are all unbalanced, devious, corrupt, brutal, madmen. In between the lines of the story we find historical references to facts about the treatment of the prisoners sent from England, and the massacre of Aboriginals, the indigenous inhabitants.

The basis of the story is that Billy Gould, a felon, thief, forger, was sent from England as punishment for his crimes. Imprisoned, escaped, re-captured, imprisoned and then chosen — since he had some experience at forgery — to paint reproductions of all the species of fish in Tasmania. This would raise the status of the Surgeon, when he presented the paintings to the English scientific community, enabling him to join the elite set in London.

Billy Gould sets out upon his task with trepidation, until it gradually becomes an obsession. He appreciates the value of the task as it raises him above the rank of the ordinary prisoners, allowing him to mix with the supervisors, and more importantly gets him off the chain gangs cutting down trees and hauling logs. Even the food was better.

During his period of painting fish, Billy Gould mixes with various officials, and so we are given a view into this surreal, absurd world, of the penal colony.

This is not your average novel, but a mind-expander. Something to enlarge your view of literature, life, injustice. And yes, more interesting and easier to read than James Joyce’s Ulysses.

“Then, perhaps overcome with nostalgia for happier times, he gave me a good kicking. Afterwards I assured him he had all the attributes necessary for a successful artistic career, though unfortunately my mouth was too swollen to list them for Pobjoy’s benefit: mediocrity; a violent capacity with any potential rivals; the desire not only to succeed but to see your fellow artists fail; gross insincerity; & a capacity for betrayal. Fortune favours folly, I tried to say, but merely succeeded in dribbling some blood & teeth.”

First published, 2001
This novel won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Review: Marcus Clark

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