Oct/Nov 2002 Book Reviews

Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish

Richard Flanagan
Picador, Macmillan (September 2001) 404 pages
ISBN: 0 330 363 03 4

reviewed by Ann Skea

Once upon a time terrible things happened, but it was long ago in a far-off place that everybody knows is not here and not now.
--Willliam Beulow Gould.

The place: Tasmania. The writer: a fish. Well, actually, Prisoner number 873645: William Beulow Gould. Or maybe not.

And that is both the delight and the frustration of this book. It is a romp, a fantasy, a history, a biography, a terrible horror-story, a comedy, a tragedy and a parable but nothing about it is ever fixed, except Billy Gould's distinctive voice and his capacity for invention.

This book begins with Sid Hammet, a ne'er-do-well forger of antique furniture which he makes, he tells us, to salve the consciences of rich American tourists (i.e. to gull them into spending money). Hammet appears to live in present day Hobart, Tasmania. But even this is questionable, because the old book of fish paintings, annotated in diary form by William Beulow Gould, which Hammet happens upon in a junk shop, turns out to be either touched by magic or another one of Hammet's fictions. Nevertheless, Billy Gould suddenly takes over the narrative. Gould, like Hammet is a forger and a con-man but also a convict, fantasist and, eventually, a painter. His painting begins with pub-signs executed to pay off his drinking debts, progresses to fake Constables and then, in 1828, at the un-refusable behest of the surgeon of the penal colony of Sarah Island, and "in the supposed interests of science," Billy begins to paint fish. Unfortunately, or fortunately, these captured specimens start to remind Billy of certain inhabitants of the penal colony. Not only that, but he starts to identify with the fish and, in the end, he turns into a Weedy Sea dragon. Or so he says.

Billy Gould's diary, written on his own secret copy of the Book of Fish, tells horrific stories of the penal colony, many of which are true. But the stories swing wildly between historical fact and fiction, and Gould's style, as befits a murderous convict, is crude, funny, disgusting and caustic by turn. Yet Gould, a professedly uneducated orphan, is also surprisingly intelligent and well-read - given, for example, to referring familiarly to the works of "Billy" Blake, Voltaire, Rousseau, Rene Descartes, Linnaeus and other such-like great men.

Richard Flanagan, the real author of Gould's Book of Fish: a Novel in Twelve Fish, has adopted a style which is reminiscent of Fielding and yet it is uniquely modern. Each chapter is headed by a brief precis of its contents; each of the twelve fish is pictured just as it would have been in Gould's Book of Fish; and the text is coloured according to whatever fluid the inventive Billy Gould concocted in order to writer his secret history (blood, excrement, squid ink, ground-up sea urchin etc.). Flanagan is wonderfully inventive with Billy's language and madly (and, at times, maddeningly) inventive with Billy's experiences and actions, and the book begins as a romp but darkens in mood as it goes along.

Perhaps (as you may have gathered nothing about this book is certain) there is a serious message in there somewhere, perhaps not. "Why," asks Billy Gould shortly before he vanishes into the deep as a Weedy Seadragon, "when all the evidence of my life tells me that the world smells worse than the old Dane's bobbing corpse, why is it that I still can't help believing that the world is good & that without love I am nothing?" In our present world, many of us might be inclined to ask the same question. And perhaps surreal storytelling such as this book provides is the only answer.

Try it. It's certainly different!


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