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

3.69  ·  Rating Details ·  3,052 Ratings  ·  393 Reviews
Once upon a time that was called 1828, before all the living things on the land and the fishes in the sea were destroyed, there was a man named William Buelow Gould, a convict in Van Dieman's Land who fell in love with a black woman and discovered too late that to love is not safe. Silly Billy Gould, invader of Australia, liar, murderer, forger, fantasist, condemned to liv ...more
Paperback, 449 pages
Published March 15th 2003 by Atlantic Books (first published 2001)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Jun 02, 2007 Ben rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2007

This is the second book in the past month (following Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist) where I've felt like the illustrious critics writing the glowing reviews that grace the jacket are like traders playing the futures market. There's no denying that Flanagan has great talent, but I'm not sure that Gould's Book of Fish is the masterpiece so many of the blurbs paint it to be, and it's certainly not (as one of them put it) "a partial answer to the question of the relative valu
May 02, 2009 Meg rated it it was ok
Dark, foul, and a little pretentious. This is one of those books where I can appreciate the author's gift of descriptive language but just find the subject matter repetitive and a bit much. Maybe someone at book club will disagree. :)
Sep 06, 2007 Magdalena rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: serious readers
There are times when, as a book reviewer, it is tempting to simply put the adjectives on hold; when mere descriptors seem paltry next to the indescribable beauty of the book itself. Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish is that kind of book. Reading it open mouthed, gasping at the richness and complexity of the text that clearly defies categorisation and classification, one feels intimately connected, while in awe of what the author has produced. Gould's Book of Fish is a serious read; one of ...more
Nancy Oakes
The writing in this book is sheer genius; I don't care what anyone says...I absolutely loved this book. It might be off-putting for a lot of is like a story within a story within a story and you could spend hours dissecting it. This is one of those books that you simply must read more than once, and if I'm correct, probably more than twice. My copy is absolutely loaded with post-its with remarks and questions & quotations...the sign of a good book for me, where there are more que ...more
Jan 14, 2009 James rated it really liked it
Shelves: lincoln-park
This novel is unique in my experience. Well-written and constructed, it is a very appealing book. In an amazing fashion it tells a fascinating story of the lives of prisoners in nineteenth century Tasmania. It is told in the form of a book within a book, as the original "Illuminated" text morphs into the story of Billy Gould, an itinerant painter whose journeys end badly. The novel is a mix of meditations and wild stories, jumping to and fro, each outlandish scene to be superseded by one strange ...more
"I scoop the roe out with my fingers, in truth it is not for this small salty pleasure that i covet the sea urchins, but for the bright purple spikes which it's shell is armoured like a lurid aquatic echidna."

- Mixed with spittle & rancid pickled pork fat, he makes ink to paint his fish.
Dennis Littrell
Apr 20, 2010 Dennis Littrell rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
Flanagan, Richard. Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish (2001) *****
An extraordinary tale, funny, fascinating & debased

A madness at once divine & profane is all that Gould sees & experiences in his wretched life, & all that he wants is rum & a soft place to lay his head. Yet all about him are madmen & such, Pickwickian monsters of depravity--& all about him are poverty & debauchery of the most bestial sort, & all he wants is a fine name to call his own &am
Juliet Wilson
Apr 26, 2010 Juliet Wilson rated it it was amazing
This is a magnificent novel, a surreal but sometimes brutally realistic wander through the live of a convict colony on an island off Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania). William Buelow Gould, a convict is ordered to paint a book of fish and in the process learns to love fish and to wonder very much about the relationships between humans and the environment and between the native peoples of the island and their brutal colonisers, not to mention the convicts. It's a book with much food for thought an ...more
Paul Bryant
Nov 23, 2012 Paul Bryant added it
Shelves: novels
An afterthought -

I ran into this rave review here the other day

and it made me think whew, an intelligent human being not only liked this pile of self-congratulatory rat's feces but loved it and wanted to marry it so this made me think...


Damn, I hate it when I'm not 100% right about everything all the time.
Now I have to get this thing and try it again. This is the stuff of councelling sessions!


In David G's review of t
Elizabeth (Alaska)
Unreliable Narrator. On one page he says he did not commit the crime of forgery for which he was confined to Sarah's Island prison. On another page, he says the only thing he knew how to do was create counterfeit documents. So when do you believe him and when do you not? Frankly, I found little of this believable, but perhaps that was the point.

Or not. I know little enough of Australian history to know when the author was satirizing his history, telling us how stupid Westerners were (and often
switterbug (Betsey)
This rollicking, raunchy, scatological, outrageous, hallucinatory, labyrinth, surreal faux history by Tasmanian Richard Flangan is told in the confessional voice of William Buelow Gould, a convict in 1827 on the British penal colony of Sarah's Island, off the coast of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania).

"Once upon a time...long ago in a far-off place that everyone knows is not here or now or us." This pertains to the barbaric fable of this mind-bending, postmodern narrative.

The real convict Gould w
Fish? Well, why not?

Maybe we have lost the ability, that sixth sense that allows us to see the miracles and have visions and understand that we are something other, larger than we have been told. Maybe evolution has been going on in reverse longer than I suspect, and we are already sad, dumb fish.

Hard to argue with that, although any resemblance I may share with the pot-bellied seahorse is purely coincidental.

This is a beautiful book, for all its scabrous people and doings. It is, as any good bl
This novel of life in a penal colony on Sarah Island off Tasmania in the 1820's could be characterized as a scatological tragicomedy, as historical fantasy, and as a satire of the human race along the lines of Swift or Voltaire. The character William Gould, sentenced to life imprisonment for forgery he didn't commit, recounts his pathway of survival and tenuous hold on sanity and reaches toward meaning in his life by writing his story. Each chapter is linked to a painting of a specific species o ...more
Billy Gould, prisoner, Sarah Island Penal Colony, Tasmania, 1830ish:

“The truth is that there is something irretrievably fishy about us all.

For many years I have been painting fish, & I would have to say that what once was an imposition – what started out as an order, became a cosy push then a criminal act – is now my love. At first I tried, in spite of my artistick shortcomings, to create a record of this place, a history of its people & its stories, & all of it was to be fish. At t
My copy of Gould's Book of Fish contains three pages of snippets from various magazines and newspapers, all praising the novel as wonderful and inventive - since the pages are printed on both sides it makes for a total of six pages of admiration for the book. I felt almost as if I was reading a popular paperback bestseller picked up at the local grocery store, and not the winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize. Not that there's anything wrong with either!

However, despite all the praise an
I so looked forward to picking up this book. The idea of writing a novel around 12 fish was intriguing. However, roughly 100 pages in, I still didn't care for any of the characters, and while the writing was good, my apathy for the story was greater than my desire to finish. Consequently, my decision to pass it on to my local bookstore with the hopes that someone else will find it entertaining is the right decision for me.
Jan 13, 2014 Gregsamsa rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This book lies well beyond this reviewer's abilities.
Dec 27, 2014 Ema rated it it was amazing
La sfârșitul acestui roman, după ultima frază care dă un cu totul alt sens poveștii, am simțit nevoia să o iau de la capăt - dar n-am făcut-o, pentru că Gould's Book of Fish m-a stors deja de puteri. Pe cât de dificilă și de chinuitoare a fost lectura, pe atât de intensă și de obsedantă a fost povestea. Frumoasă, minunată - nu, nu a fost așa. A fost sumbră, densă, un adevărat labirint de personaje și întâmplări care se năruie spre final, când elementele poveștii nu se mai potrivesc, iar înțelege ...more
Ron Charles
Dec 19, 2013 Ron Charles rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fish stories have a credibility problem. Even from the most trustworthy angler, they're slippery tales. When the teller is a forger, a liar, and a thief who admits that nothing he says can be believed, you're on guard. But when he confesses that he's also a fish, you're hooked.

Richard Flanagan has written a book that's THIS BIG, surely the slipperiest, most outrageous novel of the year. Who else would dare start with a 40-page preface that describes the story we're about to read as wondrous, lum
This book took me ages to read simply cause of the language and the way it was written. I both loved it and loathed it in equal measure. It is complex but funny. I am not sure I actually understood all of it.
This is such a truly different book...on life, on art, on fish, on the development of Van Diemen's Land and neighboring islands. It's fact and fiction and myth. Sometimes difficult to read but ultimately very worthwhile. Is it hallucination? imagination? mysticism? erotic fantasy? a gross combination of all? and summarized in the world of fish and man.

This Novel in Twelve Fish is so much more than its title could ever state or imply. Under the guise of learning of Billy Gould's task to create pa
Mar 22, 2015 Brian rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Brian by: Gregsamsa
If, like Gould, we gaze into life’s ocean and paint what we sea, will the fish be like us, the fish be like me?

The answer is yes.

When, like Gould, we search for the hero to our history, the savior of our story and find that files were god’s joke on memory and that beauty is life’s revolt against life, is it ok, like Percy Shelly, to pause and reflect that we were injured, and that means memory?

The answer is yes.

When we realize that definitions belong to the definer, not the defined; when we come
Lynne King
Jun 22, 2015 Lynne King rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction, australia
This is a beautifully written book but it is not for me. I was fascinated with William Buelow Gould and I also love anything to do with fish. I fish, flyfishing, paint and love fish. So why didn't this book appeal to me? Well I really don't know.

And as for the ending, well it was sheer fantasy...

Shame, an excellent author but then I really think that the hard life of living in a brutal penal colony was all too much for me.

The odd thing is that the author was born in Tamania and that is one of my
Justin Evans
Jun 02, 2015 Justin Evans rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Dear reader, if you decide you want to read this book, I have one burning hot tip for you: don't read The Fatal Shore immediately before it. Friends and wife told me this book was dark, disturbing etc... which it certainly would have been had I *not* been reading FS at the same time. But I was. So many of the dark incidents in Flanagan's novel are taken almost verbatim from Hughes' history that I couldn't really take them seriously the second time round.

This points to a larger problem for Gould
This is the story of William Gould, a forger and a thief who is sent to Tasmania prison which is ruined by the Commandant - a lunatic tyrant in a gold mask who apparently was a convict himself also.

Through the friendship with Tobias Lempriere - the island surgeon of Sarah Island, Gould starts to paint scientific illustrations of fish, following Darwin's example in another context of course.

With these illustrations, Gould describes the perverse conditions of this prison in the beginning of the 19
Ben Babcock
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
Vit Babenco
Aug 25, 2015 Vit Babenco rated it it was amazing
Gould's Book of Fish is a modern postmodern parahistorical novel. I don’t exactly know what it does mean but it sounds great.
“I had begun with the comforting conclusion that books are the tongue of divine wisdom, and had ended only with the thin hunch that all books are grand follies, destined forever to be misunderstood.”
All the history of humankind is a history of blood, tears and sweat…
“…I have come to believe that trajectory is everything in this life, and though at the time it felt anything
Feb 23, 2016 Amy rated it did not like it
Unfinished. Stopped around 40%. Normally I'd be an ideal candidate for this sort of thing, but ye gods, it's atrocious. Some clever, wry bits which made me sad the rest was obscured by overblown prose that wasn't particularly fresh nor captivating. Oh, except when the author heavy-handedly hammered home The Message. Thanks, dude. Wouldn't have gotten that without ya. Ten pages (or so, I'm really not about to relook at the thing) in and all.
Tracy Sherman
Feb 15, 2016 Tracy Sherman rated it it was ok
What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be alive, to be part of the great chain of life feeding upon and in turn being food for others.
What does it mean to be a man stumbling and bumbling through life, one of life's victims, near the bottom of the food chain. Then through all your trials and tribulations to discover you are a part of something bigger than yourself.
The sea.
The place from which all life began, to return home to finally feel safe and at home.
The story of a man, weak
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Richard Flanagan (born 1961) is an author, historian and film director from Tasmania, Australia. He was president of the Tasmania University Union and a Rhodes Scholar. Each of his novels has attracted major praise. His first, Death of a River Guide (1994), was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award, as were his next two, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997) and Gould's Book of Fish (2001). Hi ...more
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“So there you have it: two things & I can't bring them together & they are wrenching me apart. These two feelings, this knowledge of a world so awful, this sense of a life so extraordinary—how am I to resolve them?” 14 likes
“Is it easier for a man to live his life again as a fish, than to accept the wonder of being human? So alone, so frightened, so wanting for what we are afraid to give tongue to.” 8 likes
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