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Gould's Book of Fish - Richard Flanagan

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      22.03.2004 19:44
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      'In 1828, before all living things were destroyed, William Buelow Gould, a convict in Van Dieman's Land, fell in love with a black woman and discovered, too late, that love is not safe.' 'Gould's Book of Fish' is a work of pure, unadulterated bliss. A fantastic piece of fiction that will confuse, confound & delight you with every sumptious detail. Personally I liked the look of the Seahorse on the cover, and I'm a big fish fan, so I bought this without knowing anything about the story, or the author, or the heaped critical praise that this Aussie book has received. Flanagan has some other books under his belt too, and I will be investing in them asap... The story begins with the discovery of 'The Book of Fish', hidden in a meat safe in a junk shop by a nineteenth century petty criminal, drunk and well known forger. The luminous nature of the book, the stories it contains of a convict's life in a penal colony, enthral our narrator, and he starts a quest to get recognition for his find, but is met with disinterest and disbelief in the originality of the document. It quickly becomes an obsession, the book seeps into the cracks in his psyche, and so when the tome liquifies itself, he quickly descends into a madness that allows him to rewrite the entire thing from memory. This is the basis for the 'Novel in Twelve Fish' which follows. Our narrator becomes William Gould, forger & convict, locked in a saltwater cell and struggling against insanity, physical weakness, the slimy presence of 'The King' and an impending death sentence, and utterly obsessed with writing and painting his Book of Fish. This is the end and the start of the story. In the Fish to come we unearth William Buelow Gould's history, from England to his Antipodean prison. His character is loveable, he doesn't have an evil bone in his lice ridden body, and his ramblings provide a snapshot portrait of penal colony lif
      e, the hideous racism of the time, the foibles and decadence of The Commandent, not to mention Mr Lempriere who has aspirations of becoming a great scientist, a member of the Royal Society, (Lempriere is a priceless character, and his fate is cruelly amusing...) and employs Gould to paint for him collections of Tasmanian species - namely fish. Here begins our narrators obsession with the silent aquatic creatures, they slip over and into him, their cold eyes read him, and from a tiresome chore, painting fish becomes his only pleasure. Gould becomes what others would have him be - he becomes an artist, and he falls in love not only with his fish, but with a woman he cannot have on a permanent basis. Each chapter of the book is titled with the name of a fish (or lobster or seahorse) and basically paints a portrait of one of the characters. These people are so well rounded, they jump off the page at you, and each fulfills a stereotype of sorts, or embodies a human need or ability. The Commandent is cowardly and stupid, Capois Death, a fellow convict who survives against all odds, Musha Pug is a bully (with a smashed ball sack). Ooh just thinking about it all again is making me laugh out loud. I am loathe to tell you too much as I would hate to ruin this beautifully unique book for you. At first the writing may be hard to get into, written as it is as such a jumbled stream of consciousness, with '&' substituted for every 'and' (clever, confused me at first and then I decided it was to save the convict's ink, a nice touch), but it doesn't take long for the peculiar damp story to infuse your bones, and then the whole adventure becomes utterly compelling, and completely surreal. Flanagan is the kind of writer who comes along far too infrequently, his imagination is rich, and his writing is so beautiful it glows on the page. His choice of words is inspired, his studies of human nature and ability to weave a poignant humour around such a m
      urky tale is envious. Once I'd finished I felt the need to flick back through, re reading parts, and staring endlessly at the pictures of fish which adorn the inside covers. In the credits these are genuinely attributed to William Gould, convict artist, and taken from a book in the Tasmanian library. It sent shivers down my spine to think that any of this painful tale of wasted lives, unrealised loves and human brutality could be true. Stare into the fishy eyes and see what you think... 'Gould's Book of Fish: A novel in Twelve Fish' by Richard Flanagan, £7.99


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