Set in Van Dieman Land (Tasmania) in the first half of the 19th century, GOULD'S BOOK OF FISH is Richard Flanagan's venture into the dark and dank world of the Australian penal system. At the book's start, the narrator, Sid Hammett, a forger of antique furniture, happens upon an unusual taxonomy of fish written and illustrated by one William Buelow Gould, imprisoned for thievery on Sarah Island in the 1830s. (Fact: Gould is based on an actual figure by the same name --- an English thief and artist, William Gould, who died in 1853.) Hammett becomes obsessed with Gould's paintings and accompanying stories of beaten convicts living out the last days of their existence at the mercy of a heartless commandant. So obsessed, in fact, that when the book is lost, the narrator sets out to rewrite it in the most minute detail and to the best of his ability.
And this is when the true story begins. Prior to Gould's story, the introductory pages are mostly the ramblings of a drunken narrator, which set the stage for Gould's tale but prolong the main course of the story. Gould's epic adventures in Australia's colonial past include colorful encounters with Jean Audubon and John Keats's brother before imprisonment, and then while in jail, with the prison storekeeper Jorgen Jorgensen and the surgeon-commandant Lampiere. It is the surgeon who orders Gould to make the book of fish, containing illustrations of marine life indigenous to the island, by using meager supplies but vast imagination.
The entire book is a testimonial to the act of creation. Each chapter is printed in a different color and features a unique fish, mimicking the book-within-the-book. The package is beautiful. And Flanagan's novel is gorgeously written --- painted one might even say. Depressing at times, it whisks the reader to an undeniably darker period in Australian history from page one --- by both the content of the story and the writing itself. The imagery is vivid; take for instance this brief description of the narrator's discovery of the book: "Inside I could only make out a heap of women's magazines of years gone by, a discovery dusty as it was disappointing. I was already closing the door when beneath those fading rumours of love and tawdry tales of sad, lost princesses, my eye caught on some brittle cotton threads jutting out like Great Aunt Maisie's stubble, without shame and with a certain archaic vigour." The image this portrays is both crystal clear and humorous. This is trademark Flanagan: strong, evocative pictures that allow the reader to see, taste, and even smell the scenes he sets.
A certain magic lies within these pages. The ultimate wisdom of GOULD'S BOOK OF FISH is that a book is what we make of it. "At best a picture, books are only open doors inviting you into an empty house, & once inside you just have to make the rest up as well as you can."
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on December 26, 2002