Gould’s Book of Fish is a novel told in twelve fish. It is a book of fish, about a book of fish, about a guy who wants to be a fish, who thinks he is secretly a fish, who loves and paints fish, but is actually… not really a fish (I think)… though sometimes he is a fish. This is a novel about unreliable narration and the authenticity of what we are told – even by what is found in written records as “official” history. I really wanted to like this novel and though I have found redeeming features I honestly did not enjoy this novel as a whole package and I found it remarkably tedious at times. This novel is a very ambitious venture and I can entirely appreciate what others may see in it as without a doubt it is quite unique in how it goes about things.
Unfortunately this is not a novel I bought but it is something that I was given, which makes me feel quite awful for not enjoying it. This novel is posed as a memoir from a (presumably) cracked and overactive imagination that verges into the surreal and ridiculous at times. Authenticity is at the heart of Gould’s Book of Fish and I genuinely finished it down wondering if it wasn’t an entirely wasted journey? I really hate it when the final page of a novel reveals the secret that undoes the entire 450 pages that I have just devoted time to. Yes it’s clever, it’s a wonderful detail that makes some people clap their hands happily and squee. But in this case it just made me angry.
William Buelow Gould is a liar, murderer, forger, and convict living in a very not nice place. We are in one of the most brutal penal colonies of the British Empire. Where our not very nice character begins his long record of how he came to be here and an increasingly bizarre set of tales that are increasingly tall that all sort of muddle together into a kaleidoscopic mush.
The most important of all of these is his painting career. Tobias Lempriere who desperately wants to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Science. Lempriere is convinced that his scrupulous cataloging of wildlife will get him elected and at length describes the importance of such cataloging. He is one of the many Dickensian-esque characters with a bit of dark playful whimsy about him. Lempriere only speaks in CAPITALS and is ultimately murdered by an angry, drunk pig. When he learns that Gould is a painter he longwindedly orders to him to paint a book of fish.
While Gould has gained himself a mild position of safety within his own stories, the island around him disintegrates under the rule of a Commander slowly going mad and generally paints quite a hostile environment to live in. Gould also has the misfortune of discovering that someone who shouldn’t be is entirely fabricating life on the island in written records. Meaning that history shall remember them not as the horrible circus they are. Gould the ‘hero’ ultimately goes on a rampage about this in an attempt to save the future from the ignorance of the horrors they live in.
Flanagan sustains his writing style throughout, he is quite deft with Gould’s jaunty tangents. This novel is supposed to feel a little slapstick, but for me it was like a comedy without the humour, it didn’t really work. I didn’t really feel as if I was ever in the thick of it picking at the goop of an sea anemone through starvation. I didn’t really smell the pig shit or hear the bobbing heads in barrels screaming. The dark face of this novel is tongue in cheek and it points to the flaws in humanity but it is so detached that I couldn’t enjoy it.
But, there are plus points. This novel appalled me with the ugly face of humanity and flippant take on British Colonialism that made me feel quite uncomfortable. In that regard this novel feels entirely historically accurate.
For many reasons I think this novel may appeal to someone else, it is about awful characters and an awful place and muddling some sense of what is beautiful and what is not. But to me that cracked persona seems to suggest nothing of any real consequence beyond self-involvement and self-preservation and long days full of babbling delusions. Perhaps that nub of what has put my hackles up about this novel. There is nothing good and everyone is bad, ignorant, stupid, or mad and the past/present/future is just a story we tell ourselves.
It’s worth reading, just expect an unusual ride.