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Book review: <i>Gould’s Book of Fish</i> by Richard Flanagan

If this was a painting, it would be a gorgeous watercolour painting of a fish, seemingly untouched by time, found in a deceased elder relative’s attic, which, when investigated, turns out to be: A- created by a known convict using the bodily excretions of his rotting cell-mate’s corpse, and B- worth buckets of money.


A black backdrop with some watery yellowy-green text and mono-colour versions of the illustrations inside (fish). A bit uninspiring, particularly after reading the book and considering all the meta-book possibilities it contains…

However I should make a note of the author’s picture on the inside back cover – it’s a cheeky, pitch-perfect caricature painted in the style of the period. Whoever made it should have done the whole cover.


In modern-day Hobart, an artisan of artificial antiquities for the cruise-ship set discovers the eponymous book hidden in a second-hand shop. He finds himself becoming obsessed with the thing, and is soon (simply put) drawn into its tale, which is the life story of a convict named William Buelow Gould (who really existed, and who also painted a book of beautiful fish illustrations which are used here as chapter headings).

This leads us to an alternative history of Van Diemen’s Land, mostly taking place on the Godforsaken rock of Sarah Island, where lives are worth less than tobacco and a gold-masked madman named The Commandant tries to forge a new Europe across his mile-square kingdom. And the narrator keeps painting fish.

The good

Look, this is fantastic, really. It’s literature, AND it’s history (or at least an artful, intimately-informed parody thereof), and yet it’s entertaining, stunningly well-imagined, and written in a prose that jigs effortlessly across the page about 90% of the time.

A lot of it went over my head, and as usual I’m too insecure to blame the author for that, but he’s aiming for more than one big thematic target so it’s not unexpected. Most interesting for me is the continuous struggle of life’s cognitive dissonance – beauty and horror, forever in the same moment. Better than any subtext this theme is served by Flanagan’s perfect prose that can and will be deliciously colourful, revolting, joyous and cynical inside the same sentence. The alternate history of Tasmania is also a thing of terrible majesty – he’s baked in so much of the taste of the time and place that it becomes very hard at times to separate the ingredients into the truth, the lies, the so-hard-to-believe-that-it-might-well-be-real, and everything in between, which is surely a mark of truly sublime parody, and parody is just one of this book’s tricks.

He turns the humble, slightly dull state I grew up in into a steam-age anti-eden so intoxicating in its glorious grotesquery that I found myself occasionally laughing with horror. Not a bad effort for a worthless convict.

The bad

There are some reflections on the negative qualities of the Australian character which are tough to take, and possibly would have done better spread throughout the book rather than put right at the end. He’s spot on, though, it’s just that he does seem slightly unclear as to how to most satisfyingly conclude the book – like Number9Dream, with which it shares structural similarities, this is also about the helical nature of life, and I suspect that, while a fascinating concept when handled by both these authors, it is obviously not the most fitting subject to end with a neat conclusion. Which is OK, but Flanagan gets a little lost up his own metaphysics and states a few things too blatantly, given that he’s just spent several hundred pages making them delightfully rich in our minds without the need for straight-talk. On the other hand, it helped me (as a non-literature dude) to figure out more of what the heck was going on. Look, I guess you could say that Flanagan has bitten off, if not more than he could chew, then a mouthful so meaty it renders impossible any graceful swallowing.

I thought perhaps the love element was under-realised, for instance, in the general scheme. There was quite enough going on without it, or else Flanagan could have given it a greater priority – it’s not as though he was afraid to toy with reality, so why not a female element slightly stronger than an aboriginal prostitute called Tupenny Sal who doesn’t appear for chapters at a time?

What I learnt

Argh. I don’t even want to think about this too much! A timely reminder, perhaps, that not only was genocide committed in Tasmania with a systematic brutality that puts the North American settlers to shame, but that this was done in the name of a prison where atrocity equaled existence in a way rarely seen before or since. Thank God. In who’s name, along with that of the crowned head still featured on our currency, all this was done. Perhaps, therefore, we are not “nature’s rebels”, as we sometimes fancy.

In short

Title: Gould’s Book of Fish
Author: Richard Flanagan
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 0802139590
Year published: 2002
Pages: 416
Genre(s): Contemporary literature

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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