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Richard Flanagan: Gould’s Book of Fish

The basic theme of this book – a picaresque journey, which recounts the terrible travails of an unfortunate man who somehow surmounts many of his problems – is as old as literature. Indeed, it is clear that Flanagan has read not only his Laurence Sterne and his Peter Carey but much in-between. Of course, Sterne and Carey succeeded because they had a very funny tale to tell and clearly sympathised if not empathised with their main character. Flanagan’s book got lots of good reviews – Michiko, for example, in the blurb on the back of my copy called it a wondrous, phantasmagorical meditation on art and history and nature. It isn’t.

It starts off with the narrator finding and then losing Gould’s Book of Fish, a series of paintings of strange fish, with accompanying text. How and why did he lose the book and did he ever find it? We do not know. Flanagan just drops that story and plunges us into Gould’s. Gould has had a chequered career and must be considered an unreliable narrator, as his story certainly changes. However, for whatever reason and whoever he is (he also seems to have changed identity more than once), he ends up in a British penal colony on Sarah Island, off the coast of Australia, in the late nineteenth century. There he soon shows a certain skills at painting and is used by the powers that be for that purpose. In particular, he is skilled at painting fish. The surgeon, Lempriere, is in correspondence with Sir Cosmo Wheeler, who is clearly using Lempriere’s skill at collecting various Australian plant and animal species to enhance his own cause within the Royal Society, while holding out the carrot of Royal Society membership to Lempriere, who is turn using Gould. To make matters more complicated, the Commandant of the Island, who may not be who he says he is, has dreams of grandeur and plans on turning his island into a great colony, with major train connections, a huge Mah-Jong Palace and other great schemes. Everything falls apart in the end, even the would-be Billy the Kid/Ned Kelly, who is to rescue the beleaguered convicts.

But it is all too forced. Flanagan takes great delight in picturing the disgusting – from the surgeon getting his penis caught in a window sash, having it turn black and then amputated by the cook with a carving knife to the same surgeon being eaten by his favourite pig and then shat out in a huge turd to describing in gleeful detail the various tortures inflicted on the convicts. There is nothing wrong with a bit of guts and gore but Flanagan seems to wallow in it for its own sake. Moreover, he really does try too hard to be what Michiko calls phantasmagorical and what I call unnecessarily over the top. We can have little sympathy for Gould or those who surround him, we don’t care about his fish and as a microcosm of the brutality, racism and grandiose dreams of politicians currently found in Australia, well, ho, hum.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Pan Macmillan