Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish
by Richard Flanagan
Genre: Literary Fiction
Gould’s Book of Fish has won many awards. It has been lauded with great praise for its magic realism, and while I did find Flanagan’s way with words quite lyrical, the story bored me. It is an odd set-up. It starts off with an ex-con in Tasmania who finds old junk furniture and makes it look like an antique so when the American tourists get off cruise ships, they will pay a fortune for it. While searching for some furniture, he comes across Gould’s Book of Fish. It is a book written by William Buelow Gould, a prisoner of the Sarah Island Penal Colony in the 1830s. It tells about his prison life and also contains paintings of fish found around Tasmania. The ex-con loves the book, but then loses it. The rest of the novel is him writing down what he remembers from it so there will another record of this outstanding book. I differ with the ex-con about the wonderfulness of this fish book.
I thought it would be interesting to read about the penal colony, and how the English essentially took an island and made it into a massive prison for years before abandoning it. There was potential there, but I felt nothing while reading it. I should have felt horror while reading of the torture being done to prisoners and the rampant racism and torture done to the indigenous people, but it was described with a wink and a smile that I could not take it seriously. Billy Gould had nothing for me to care about since he did not seem to care about anything. Things happened to him and he accepted them. He went with the flow so much that it became monotonous.
I gave up on the book for a few weeks and then decided to finish it. I have a hard time giving up on books so I usually see them through to the end. I was hoping that there would be a point at the end or it would wrap up the story in some satisfying way. It did not. By the end, I had forgotten that it was an ex-con writing a story within a story, but when it came back to him, I was thrilled that it was almost over.
On a side note, there was a real man named William Buelow Gould that was a prisoner in the Sarah Island Penal Colony who drew the fish of Tasmania that had not been documented in any way before. I guess this could be historical fiction since it took a real person and made up a story of what his life could have been like. I have also seen it referred to as magic realism since there are definitely some magical elements in the story, especially by the end of the book. When I read the last line on the last page though, I dropped the book immediately and said, “That was not worth it.”