Review of Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by

Book cover for Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish

Britain had some whack ideas. Remember that time they colonized an entire continent with convicts? That was whack.

Gould’s Book of Fish is the epistolary adventure of William Gould, a convict imprisoned on Sarah Island. Somewhere along the way he picked up enough painting skills to become an artist, and he starts painting fish for the island’s science-and-status–obsessed Surgeon instead of working on the chain gang.

I enjoy books (The Luminaries comes to mind) set in this frontier period of the colonization of Australia and New Zealand. Like The Luminaries, this book has a somewhat pretentious structure and style as Flanagan attempts to use Billy Gould to plumb the depths of human suffering and soul-searching. Each chapter is headlined by a particular fish from this book that Gould is working on, and the fish becomes a metaphor for the philosophical ramblings of that instalment in Gould’s life.

Basically this book is an account of Gould’s suffering on Sarah Island, and of the various strange and nonsensical happenings that he witnesses there. Since we’re being told this all from Gould’s perspective, there are some serious unreliable narrator issues here. So it’s not possible to take the events of the story at face value, to say, “this happened,” and use that certainty as the metric by which we can judge Gould’s rambling.

Case in point: the characters of this book aren’t so much people as they are examples of types of excess that afflict the human experience. (This is confirmed, in the most postmodern of ways, by the “afterword” note.) Each character is a facet of Gould’s madness—a madness that might have been exacerbated by his imprisonment but maybe has lurked there all along, lurks beneath all of us.

Two things that I loved about this book.

Firstly, Gould’s narrative voice is rich. It’s one thing to write a book set in a historical period and another thing to write with the voice of someone from that period. Through diction, sentence structure, and punctuation, Flanagan makes Gould’s voice come alive. This makes the book entertaining despite the darkness inherent in Gould’s experiences.

Secondly, just when you think you’ve seen all Flanagan has to offer, he manages to change things up and deliver an even crazier situation. He certainly has imagination, and it shows on every page here. This is a very creative book, and that made it more enjoyable.

So what stops me from singing more than dull praises? Is it the weird ending? The bizarre use of a frame story that Flanagan never returns to (except with one passing reference)? Or the constant parade of deaths, either real or metaphorical, without much in the way of happiness? Gould’s is a very Hobbesian view, mixed in with a certain amount of postmodern irony. Humans are just other animals, full of natural and atavistic urges. We pretend we suppress those urges, but that’s a lie. And that’s apparently the source of our unhappiness.

This is a book that tries to be deep, and I suppose if you are willing to spend the time to study and analyze and prod it, you’ll find those depths. Maybe I’m just growing impatient in my old age. Maybe I’m losing my enjoyment of subtext. Whatever the reason, Gould’s Book of Fish was an adequate way to spend my time. But neither Gould’s voice nor Flanagan’s capacity for storytelling surprises could quite compensate for the almost desultory atmosphere that pervades the text. Maybe this will be the intensely philosophical, brooding text that you have been waiting for—I can’t discount that possibility. It just didn’t speak to me. I know this because I’m not particularly proud of the quality of this review. I could have spent more time talking more deeply about the philosophical underpinnings of this book. I just don’t care enough about it to do so. I’m going to go buy tea now instead.


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