Gould’s Book Of Fish by Richard Flanagan

14236 Tasmania. The present day. A petty forger finds an 1820s convict journal in a junkshop, then loses it (in a bar, he drinks a lot) and then, because it has captivated him so much – too much, perhaps – he decides to rewrite it from memory. So what we have is an original manuscript – which may never have existed anyway and has already been judged a fake – being remembered by someone who is possibly mad and definitely unreliable. It’s a nice set-up, with something of the tone – if not the fevered intricacy – of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. There is (in the overarching story) a ‘real’ Book Of Fish by William Buelow Gould, which contains only paintings, with no journal. In fact, it’s not just in the story – that Book Of Fish actually exists and was indeed by a real William Buelow Gould, a real convict artist, who was incarcerated on the very real Sarah Island, which was – Robert Hughes’ exhaustive history of transportation to Australia The Fatal Shore tells us – overseen by tyrannical commandant John Cuthbertson. Here reality and the novel part company: the remembered Book Of Fish tells of a commandant who wears a gold mask, has a Great Mah Jong Hall built and rides on a full-size steam train that goes round and round in a small circle, with painted backdrops outside giving the impression of a journey through the world’s great landscapes. The ‘real’ Gould – well, he’s not real in the book of course, this gets confusing but bear with it – is, like the supposed author, who is of course actually the Gould we are reading as well because he’s writing the journal as he remembers it – unreliable and possibly mad. Events in their lives intermingle and elide – no great surprise since they are in effect one and the same person – as a frieze of grotesques clamour for our attention and an impossible library reveals a dreadful secret. In short, it is all a clever tightrope act, the sort of halleucinogenic nonsense which can quickly outstay its welcome and have the reader retreating quietly to the exit long before the end. But this grips.

 

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