Nobody can accuse Richard Flanagan of resting on his laurels after his well-received debut novel The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1999) and its follow-up, Death of a River Guide (2001). Certainly no one can accuse him of retelling, as some authors do, the same basic story again and again in different guises. Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish is about as different a book as it is possible to imagine in comparison to his previous two works—and for that matter, in comparison to its fiction competitors of this publishing season, as well. Reviewer Caroline Fraser, writing in the Los Angeles Times, rightly calls it “surely one of the most eccentric novels to appear in recent years.”
Flamboyant, lushly styled, outrageous, dark, funny, cynical, humane, gratuitously violent, byzantine, self-conscious, exuberant, grotesque, graceful, ghoulish, frustrating, cocky, over-reaching, and chaotic are all valid descriptors of the picaresque tall tale within a tall tale that is Gould’s Book of Fish. If some of those terms seem contradictory, that is because Flanagan’s third novel is at its heart, among many other things, such an act of willful—at times joyful—contradiction that its pages at times seem barely capable of containing it. Strangely enough, the pages themselves even get into the act, with various chapters printed in different ink colors representing the natural pigments its castaway hero was able to find, steal, or cajole on a particular day to fuel his makeshift pens, which are actually spines from sea urchins. Since any kind of record-keeping by prisoners is a capital crime, Gould goes to great lengths to keep his pages hidden in a high crevice of his cell, which is located below the tide line and fills twice a day with water.
The novel’s complexity makes a brief overview of its plot difficult to achieve. The story is set, as are all Flanagan’s novels, on the remote island off the southeast coast of Australia known as Tasmania. The contemporary narrator of the thirty-eight-page preface is a ne’er-do-well whose latest failed scheme was creating fake antiques for the port’s tourist market. One day in a junk shop he comes across an unusual old volume (coincidentally titled The Book of Fish) with magical and hallucinatory properties, which becomes his sole obsession. Then, one night in a pub, the book inexplicably self-destructs (technically, turns into water) before his eyes. The remainder of the novel is presented as the antique-forger’s attempt to reconstruct, from memory and his own haphazard notes, the journal of a nineteenth century convict named William Buelow Gould, imprisoned (coincidentally, for forgery) at the infamous and unspeakably brutal Sarah Island penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land, or today’s Tasmania. (Gould is based on a real-life character, whose paintings the author first saw at the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Art, Library of Tasmania; twelve of the paintings are reproduced in full color, one at the beginning of each chapter.)
The book recounts the drastic ups and downs of Gould’s years on Sarah Island, doing the bidding of the bizarre, and likely insane, men (rendered here as caricatures, alas, but complex and compelling ones) who make up the penal colony’s administrators. The novel gets its title from an ongoing project that Gould is assigned when the prison’s doctor, one Tobias Achilles Lempriere, discovers the forger’s artistic talents. Lempriere, an amateur naturalist, dreams of scientific fame and believes that producing an elaborate illustrated taxonomy of the region’s unique species of fish (although ghost-painted, as it were, by the prisoner) will win him election to the Royal Society. Gould’s painting schedule provides him, for a few hours a day, a semblance of normal life and mobility from which he witnesses the torture and degradation of the colony’s inmates. Gould’s arrival on the island provides one of the book’s most memorable passages:
On disembarking, we were to discover all the requisite brutality & squalid circumstances you might expect of such a place. But even before alighting, even before we saw anything up close, our noses were assailed by the effluvium of death. Death was in that heightened smell of raddled bodies and chancre- encrusted souls. Death arose...
(The entire section is 1776 words.)