Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan

Gould's Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan

Gould’s Book of Fish brings to alarmingly vivid fictional life the goings-on at Macquarie Harbour penal colony, reputedly one of the harshest of the real-life British penal settlements in Van Diemen’s Land (now the Australian state of Tasmania) in the early 1800s. The rambling, at times hypnotic tale is told from the point of view of William Buelow Gould, jailed regularly as a forger but perhaps more unfortunate and imprudent in his choice of company than genuinely criminal. Throughout his personal history in and out of various forms of incarceration, he finds both salvation and damnation through his skills with a paintbrush.

Alternately crisp, shocking and brilliant, then long-winded to the verge of tediousness, Richard Flanagan has forged a thorny masterpiece. Description of life – if it could be called that – in the penal colony is thick with unforgettable and at times macabre violence, the singular perversity and brutality of what those in nominal power do to those in their control in the surreal penal colony. At its best, some of the bizarre plans of those besotted with their pathetic power in this setting take on a comic grandiosity reminiscent of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The rush of almost unbelievable cruelty is sometimes halted in its tracks, though, by moments of stunning, lyrical intimacy and love, as Gould simply fights to survive, to maintain his sanity and to make human connections.

While Gould’s Book of Fish is ostensibly about a visual artist, it is a unique tribute to both the power and, at times, the impotence of words. Characters die, quite literally, because of the words they have amassed and the deceptions or other nefarious purposes for which they have amassed them. While Flanagan has created a story about and structured using pictures (taken from archived images by the real Gould), he has created with words many images so indelible you won’t be able to erase them, even if you most fervently wish to.

Gould’s Book of Fish culminates in the layering on of so many themes and considerations that some readers will be left exhausted, on the heels of the shock and brutality of much of what Gould has gone through and witnessed. That he does get through it to a form of perhaps unusual peace is some reward for persevering with this demanding book. I commit to revisiting this review in a few months’ time, as I suspect another reward of persevering is that there will be a revelatory afterglow from this book once its demands and shocks have dissipated.

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