With a title such as Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan's Commonwealth Prize-winning third novel, expect something wonderfully slippery and self-conscious from one of the finest talents to have emerged from Australia since Peter Carey. Like Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, Flanagan has written a history of a lost colonial voice--that of William Buelow Gould, a "pathetick forger, this drunkard trying his best to be on the make" who in the 1820s was sentenced to hard labour on the brutal penal colony of Sarah Island, "a silver sea monster of fable rearing its terrible head" off the coast of Van Dieman's Land--present-day Tasmania.
Finding himself at the mercy of a brutal and insane colonial regime that indulges its bizarre fantasies whatever the cost to the inmates, Gould finds himself commissioned to paint fish indigenous to the island. Gould's beautiful book of fish survives to this day, and his pictures are part of the exquisite design of Flanagan's book, which attempts to reproduce the original feel of Gould's book. But this is the novel's last connection to reality. Gould's fish, with their "coloring & surfaces & translucent fins suggest the very reason and riddle of life". Gould begins to realise that "a fish is a truth", and gradually his own pictures become a point of resistance to the ruthless classification and surveillance that characterises life on the penal colony. The book is a picaresque fantasy that encompasses art, science, empire and commerce, as well as sex, murder, liberation, castration, bestiality and a whole host of even more unlikely topics. The writing is extraordinary--luminous, sinewy, at times hilarious, often gruesome. Sometimes Flanagan goes too far, as his linguistic pyrotechnics feel like a parody of Sterne or Rabelais, but there can be no doubt that Gould's Book of Fish is a marvellously ambitious novel from a writer with enviable raw talent. --Jerry Brotton