Tony's Reviews > Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish

Gould's Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan
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Apr 30, 15

bookshelves: australian, obscure-but-cool, top-10-2012, autographed
Read in June, 2012

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 blurbist will tell you, wonderfully imagined. A modern-day con-man finds a book of watercolour-painted fish with accompanying text from a convict in early 19th century Australia. Is it real? Soon we are swimming in the story of that book, of cruel confinement, drugged visions of grandeur, race, sex, every emotion and every type of man, a fine kettle of fish. While there is allegory to satisfy the biggest Thomas Mann fan, there is also writing that provokes as it amuses. In one sentence he eviscerates an entire legal system:

In that courtroom there was a lot of dark wood trying to take itself seriously.

Seriously. If you've spent any time in the majesty of the law, you will appreciate that that single sentence defines it even as it destroys it. Yet, our protagonist, finding himself in the dock, is able to reflect:

Because you see I was born not an evil man, but simply the bastard issue of a fair day's passion, a folly, a three-thimble trick like my present name, & beneath whichever one you lift there is . . . nothing.

That's some writing chops there.

But he's not done:

My real crime was seeing the world for what it is & painting it as a fish.

The 'kettle' is not simply an island penal colony, but the European system that would send men there, a "Europe exploding into a thousand atonal notes." See Thomas Mann reference above.

At best a picture, a book 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.

This book is subtitled A Novel in Twelve Fish and there are indeed twelve chapters, each with a wonderful painting of a fish, twelve different types of fish. There are a dozen or so colleagues on the floor where I work. It was fun and relatively easy to assign a matching fish to each one. Oh, Serpent Eel, you know who you are. The Weedy Seadragon, the Kelpy, the Stargazer, the Striped Cowfish, the Crested Weedfish, the Silver Dory, the Freshwater Crayfish, the Porcupine Fish, the Leatherjacket, the Sawtooth Shark, and, you know, like I said, the Pot-Bellied Seahorse. I like my fellow fish, Richard Flanagan writes. But he also says:

I simply had spent too much time in their company, staring at them, committing the near criminal folly of thinking there was something individually human about them, when the truth is that there is something irretrievable fishy about us all.

I have to read all Richard Flanagan's other books now.

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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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·Karen· Such a bouillabaisse of a book, but you have managed to contain it.

I shall never forget the Commandant's National Railway and Grand Mah Jong Hall. Such opportunity for trompe l'oeil. What a romp.


message 2: by Velvetink (last edited Jun 30, 2012 05:40AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Velvetink I was won over to Flannagan by this book. His other books are individual dishes to taste, but not so fishy.


Tony The Surgeon's brain being examined by phrenologists was my favorite part.


Tony What book of his would you recommend next, Velvetink?


message 5: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Klappenskoff Wonderful review, Tony.


·Karen· I loved Death Of A River Guide.

And Wanting was impressive too. Historical again.

The Unknown Terrorist: A Novel is much 'straighter', a riff on Böll's The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. I have to say I like the Böll much much better.

I couldn't get on with The Sound of One Hand Clapping at all. Very hard going, very harrowing, just too much.

I'm sorry I'm not Velvetink.


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