Saturday, October 10, 2009

Gould's Book of Fish (2001)

Gould's Book of Fish (2001) by Richard Flanagan is indescribably weird and wonderful. The story of one forger told by another, Flanagan co-opts the life of real convict artist William Buelow Gould as the narrator of his book within a book that tells the story of a horrific Tasmanian penal colony in the 1830s, art, Australia, love, race, and fish. Lots and lots of fish.

In modern-day Tasmania, a man (who makes fake antiques for a living) finds an unusual book with detailed drawings of fish in the back of a junk store. He becomes obsessed with the scrawled narrative that surrounds the drawings -- bits and pieces of a story, written in different colored inks on found scraps of paper. He can't stop reading the book or talking about it. Every time he opens it, he finds a new passage he hadn't read before, or an unseen slip of paper slides out of the binding. And then one day he finishes it. And the whole thing turns into a salty puddle on the bar. So, after an intimate experience with a fish, he decides to re-create Gould's masterpiece. Which brings us to the book of fish.

Gould is possibly the most untrustworthy narrator ever created, but he is all we have, and he is so damn compelling, that we just make do. He has been exiled to Australia for at least one of a variety of real or mistaken crimes (including forgery, murder, sexing up the wrong people, and disrespecting the flag). And when he eventually is sentenced to the worst and most isolated prison on the rough west coast of Tasmania, he is mistaken by the prison surgeon as an artist, and commissioned to paint realistic drawings of the fish that are brought up in the colony nets for a scientific project in England. Even though he is not really an artist, he likes the small perks that come with the position, and goes with it. At first hating the fish, then loving them, and eventually merging with them completely.

This book has a Tristram Shandyness about it, mixed with a huge dose of colonialism and fishy philosophy. The narrative is at once loose and unconventional, and tightly constructed and satisfying. Absolutely worth checking out.

[Thanks, Corie!]

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