Gould’s Book of Fish is a firecracker of a novel. Set in the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land, the place teems with outrageous characters. From love interest Twopenny Sal to the trickster Capois Death and the oh-so-unreliable narrator William Buelow Gould. Not to mention all the fish.
a fish cell
The inhumanity of a penal colony has been well-documented. Gould speaks to us from inside his jail cell. Nature is as cruel as the convict-overseers of this place.
When I once more feel that sharp smarting around the scabby sores that cluster like so many oysters on my ankles beneath my chained iron basils, I know that the tide has turned. Then this cell, built at the base of sandstone cliffs below the high water mark […] will fill to above my head.
Not that Gould will drown. He bobs about in his saltwater bath, clinging to the bars so that he can breathe in the foot of air space that remains in his cell. When the tide goes back out, Gould can resume his warfare with the jailors.
Sometimes they bring me a taj of skilly & rancid pork fat in a cup or a bowl, & they throw it at me. Sometimes I smile back, & if & when I am feeling especially energetic, I’ll lob a turd I’ve kept especially for the occasion in return.
It almost sounds like fun. What sort of person finds joy in hell?
Listen to what Gould himself says:
I am William Buelow Gould – convicted murderer, painter & numerous other unimportant things. I am compelled by my lack of virtue to tell you that I am the most untrustworthy guide you will ever trust, a man dead before his time, a forger convicted in the gloomy recesses of the Bristol Assizes on that muggy afternoon of 10 July 1825.
But Gould is a shapeshifter. He’s as impossible to grasp and made to sit still as his beloved fish, the objects of his art. Throughout this “novel in twelve fish”, Gould introduces himself to the reader until it is we who begin to doubt our own sanity.
I am William Buelow Gould & I mean to paint for you as best as I can, which is but poorly, which is but a rude man’s art, the sound of water on stone, the fool’s dream of the hard giving way to the soft, & I hope you will come to see reflected in my translucent watercolours not patches of the white cartridge paper beneath, but the very opacity of the souls themselves.
oh the places you’ll go!
Richard Flanagan was already a celebrated author in his native Australia by the time he wrote Gould’s Book of Fish. But I didn’t know his work until The Narrow Road Into the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. Set on the Burma Railroad, Flanagan dedicated The Narrow Road to his father:
prisoner san byaku san ju go (335), the Japanese number given to him as a PoW.
The writing in The Narrow Road is elegant and austere. Flanagan strips each sentence of all emotion. They hang bare and bleached on the page. That creative choice makes sense to me, given the horror of its setting.
It would have made perfect sense for Gould’s Book of Fish, too. The horrors of a penal colony are no less than a Japanese POW camp. The guards are as bestial; the condition of the convicts worse than that accorded to the homicidal pig Castlereigh. When you talk about such violence, you naturally lower your voice. You hold it all in, just as Flanagan’s father must have done.
Yet the language in Gould’s Book of Fish is unreservedly over the top. Colors explode, wounds suppurate, limbs fly off though rarely of their own accord. In an unfortunate accident involving the Surgeon, a heavy window sash and his exposed male member, Flanagan portrays the sorry consequences in glorious technicolor.
the opiate did nothing to alter the steady progress of his sex over the next few weeks from a sorry red worm to a large black slug, which he rested upon a small Huon pine platform he had built for the purpose. This he would daily fasten to his body by the expedient of looping a turquoise silk ribbon around the upper rim of his voluminous love handles & tying it in a large, ostentatious bow on the boil-contoured & hair-forested flab of his back.
This is not the work of an author who’s found his niche (prisoners). Or a writer who has only one way in which to tell his tale. Flanagan is a ventriloquist. He adapts his voice to his characters.
Dorrigo Evans, hero of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a surgeon. He’s an example to the other prisoners and a traitor to his own heart. He speaks quietly, as if in need of husbanding all his energy.
Billy Gould, in contrast, is the maker of the eponymous book of fish. He’s a painter and a forger. A man so in love with life, he can find beauty in a pail of dying fish. Now that’s an art.
With all due thanks to the wonderful Dr. Seuss and his books cited above.