Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan
I went on a strange journey and now that I’ve returned, I’m not quite sure what just happened.
Actually, Gould’s Book of Fish is what happened.
I have to start off by saying that I loved this book. Loved it. We didn’t start off on the right foot together (admittedly, I may have just been grumpy that day), but once the narrative really kicked off, I was hooked. The language is what really makes this book. The descriptions throughout are so vivid, so unusual, and so full of just really delightful, fun, meaty words, that I couldn’t help but want to keep reading bits out to people. Since my husband is the only person who would put up with that sort of thing, he copped it all. Not that he objected to the material, but considering that I started reading this book right after he finished, it may have been too soon to subject him to someone else basically reading him the entire book again, piecemeal. But perhaps not; we did chuckle over a lot of the same bits and had some good discussions over some of our favourite descriptive passages and characters.
I’ve heard it said before that it’s “not the destination, but the journey, that matters.” In my mind, that couldn’t be more true for Gould’s Book of Fish. For me, it wasn’t so much of a “what happens next?” kind of book, but a strange, meandering wander in an unfamiliar land.
The book tells us, more or less, the story of William Buelow Gould, a convict serving time on the infamous Sarah Island, known for being the location of the harshest of Australia’s penal colonies. As it turns out, he is also an artist — a reluctant one at first. We follow him on his journey as he grows into the realisation of what his art truly means to him, that it helps him to accept the harsh world he lives in and reveals to him all the brilliant, brutal beauty of life.
The character, Gould, is based on a real person, but this book is a fantasy rather than a historic fiction. Gould himself tells us that he is an unreliable narrator, so even within the construct of the novel, we can never be certain what is truth or lies, reality or delusion. Richard Flanagan has done this so artfully though — weaving the real world with the invented in a way that made me want to look up the historical Gould to see which facts tallied up. His descriptions of the Macquarie penal colony are terrifying and, I imagine, quite accurate. The realism of the harsh treatment of prisoners and the squalid conditions in which they existed, mixed with the more surreal images of a giant, malignant porcine and a completely mad despot with fanciful plans, creates a grotesque, topsy-turvy world, where you have no idea what to expect next. Amongst the cruelty and the gore, like Gould, we too find humour and beauty. They shine all the more for the dark setting in which they’re found.
For me, this is also a book about how we construct the past, about what we allow future generations to remember of our story, about who has the power to decide. It’s about the myths we try to construct about our nation’s founding, the lies we collectively tell in order to be able to live with how we came to exist here. Gould’s Book of Fish is one of those wonderful creations that has so much in it, but so much left open to interpretation that you could think about it indefinitely… ponder… theorise… discuss… wander.