Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan

Gould’s Book of Fish… A novel in 12 fish. Where to begin with this one? I have a formula for reviews that you will probably have noticed – a couple of paragraphs that précis the book and then a couple about what I think it’s really about and why I liked it (or hated it). The odd book has challenged this formula, but I’ve always managed to make it fit. Not so here. Gould’s Book of Fish doesn’t want to be précised. To tell you that Sid Hammet, a small time Tasmanian crook, finds a book whilst rummaging through the back room of an antique shop and that, so taken with its contents, he chooses to rewrite it when it disappears would not be to do it justice. To tell you that it’s a book within a book, that the main event is in fact William Buelow Gould’s account of his life on Tasmania’s most feared penal colony where he makes his way as a painter of fish (and men and things and history) would be factually accurate but wouldn’t even begin to touch the surface of this novel…

This is the most fantastically exuberant book; it sparks with a frenetic energy from every page. The narrator’s voice is incredible; powerful, evocative, funny, harsh and all the while completely untrustworthy. The intricate tale that is woven around the harsh unrealities of the penal colony of Sarah Island is utterly compelling. The vile dystopia is made so real by every sentence that even though you know in your heart of hearts that you are being spun a line you want to believe that it’s true, despite the horrors that are being described.

I’ve been trying to think of ways to describe this book and I’ve only come up with the most effusive of phrases – jaw dropping, awe inspiring, gob smacking. It’s all of those things and more. It hits you in a myriad of ways at all times… The speed and flexibility of the prose makes you think of stream of consciousness writing of the power of Burroughs (or more contemporary perhaps Noon) yet the underlying precision of the narrative and the metaphor that builds throughout the book makes you realise that there is more at work here than at first meets the eye. On one level it paints a picture of an almost Gormenghast-like intensity. On another it describes the nature of incarceration and of the penal system. But on the third, like Peake, Flanagan has created a metaphorical world which he then turns on our own modern times.

I don’t want to liken this book to Gormenghast too closely. At the peak (excuse the pun) of the novel Sarah Island does feel like Castle Gormenghast. And the colony and the Commandant do meet their ends in a fire. But these are feelings – vibes – rather than direct comparison. Flanagan has a very different purpose – he is not angry, not raging against the dying of the light as Peake was when he wrote his trilogy. Instead this is a book of wonder, of awe. In fact, to only mention Mervyn Peake and William S. Burroughs in a review would doubtless put many people off and paint a darker picture of this book than it deserves. It is in places very dark, but that dark is not neverending. The prose is almost poetic and flows exaggeratedly more often than not, but it returns quickly and often to a solid base. Flanagan’s prose is written out of the love of telling a good story, out of the sheer pleasure of the awesome power of words. He delights in twisting reality through every nuance and metaphor and throughout he is really trying to tell us one thing…

Through the records of every court that Billy Gould has ever been hauled before, through Miss Anne’s letters to the Commandant, through the Surgeon’s desperate cataloguing of fish and skulls, through the mad Dane’s fictional records of the colony, through Twopenny Sal’s dancing and ultimately through Gould’s Book of Fish and Sid Hammet’s retelling of it all this is a novel about the power of words and the words of those in power. This is a novel that exists precariously on that fine line between where words become the world and the world becomes words. It is a novel that is lived out in everybody’s head because sometimes it is impossible not to remain looking inward. It is a novel where the fact that it is written makes it so, where any and every story becomes history.

We all know that history is written by the victor. This book gives Billy Gould one last, small victory. I loved it.