Wednesday, January 02, 2008

'Gould's Book of Fish' by Richard Flanagan

2 January 2008

David Lack introduced me to 'Gould's Book of Fish - a novel in twelve fish' by Richard Flanagan. It's an incredibly clever book. William Buelow Gould was a real convict transported to Van Dieman's Land in 1828. Flanagan fictionalises Gould's story, giving us a gritty realist picture of an early Tasmanian prison colony - a horrible, brutal place - 'Papillon' relocated off the coast of Australia. But despite the detailed realism nothing is quite what it seems. Firstly the book is set within a framing device in which a modern-day Tasmanian forger discovers and becomes obsessed by Gould's memoirs (written in the margins of his book of fish paintings) but then loses the book and decides to re-write it from memory. So what we are reading is his half-remembered version of what Gould might have written - giving Flanagan license to take the story very gradually, subtly and incrementally into increasingly surreal territory. (This re-telling by a fictional author within a novel reminded me of Philip Roth's 'American Pastoral'.) All of which was very impressive but I'm afraid it didn't really engage me - I found the grotesque characters, violent events and oppressive conditions fairly hard-going and didn't really sympathise with anyone. I reluctantly struggled through most of the book only to encounter a great 'Usual Suspects' twist at the very end which almost made me want to go back and read the whole thing again - almost but not quite. For a much more engaging (and very funny) account of early Tasmanian history I would recommend Mathew Kneale's wonderful novel 'English Passengers'.



At 12:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I've done it again! We obviously react to completely different aspects of novels. Yes, the book is probably too self consciously clever (you didn't mention another device, which was the parallels between the characters and the fish used as chapter titles). I loved this book, though I have to say, some of the graphic punishment details were hard going. Maybe I have a tendency to be too impressed by smoke and mirrors!


At 4:53 pm, Blogger Robin Simpson said...

Looking at the reader reviews on Amazon it seems like it's a novel you either love or hate - many people do name it as their favourite book. I guess, as with 'The Third Policeman', it would hold my attention much better on a second or third read but I'm afraid it just didn't grab me first time round.



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