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Gould's Book of Fish Paperback – December 26, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Gould's Book of Fish, an extraordinary work of fact-based fiction by Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan (Death of a River Guide) is a journey through the fringe madness of Down Under colonialism. Set during the 1830s in a hellish island prison colony off the Tasmanian coast, the novel plucks a real-life thief and prisoner, English forger William Buelow Gould, from the pages of history to act as protagonist-narrator. Through Gould's unique capacity to blend hyperbole, hyperrealism, and self-effacing honesty, the reader acquires a shockingly clear picture of daily torment on the island. Yet more remarkable is Gould's portrait of bizarre ambitions among prison authorities to further principles of art and science amidst so much misery. Key to such plans is Gould's talent as a painter and illustrator. The compound's surgeon, nursing hopes of publishing a definitive guide to the island's fish, leans heavily on Gould's ability to record the taxonomy of various species. Though Gould accommodates his masters, the manuscript, in his hands, becomes testimony to their perverse dreams of civilization and his own quick-witted survival instincts. Throughout, Flanagan never loses the well-imagined voice of Gould's candor or the character's dense descriptive powers, talents that translate into a thrilling text that reads like a blend of Melville and Burgess. --Tom Keogh --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Flanagan (The Sound of One Hand Clapping) has written a Tasmanian version of Rimbaud's Season in Hell, a mesmerizing portrait of human abjection and sometimes elation set in a 19th-century Down Under penal colony. A small-time forger of antiques in contemporary Tasmania finds a mysterious illustrated manuscript that recounts in harrowing detail the rise and fall of a convict state on Sarah Island, off the Tasmanian coast, in the 1830s. The text is penned by William Gould, a forger and thief (and an actual 19th-century convict) shipped from England to a Tasmanian prison run as a private kingdom by the Commandant, a lunatic tyrant in a gold mask rumored to have been a convict himself. The prison world consists of a lower caste of convicts tormented with lengthy floggings, vile food and various mechanical torture devices by a small number of officers and officials. Gould finagles his way into the good graces of the island surgeon, Tobias Achilles Lempriere, a fat fanatic of natural science, who has Gould paint scientific illustrations of fish, with the goal of publishing the definitive ichthyological work on Sarah Island species. In Gould's hands, however, the taxonomy of fish becomes his testimony to the bizarre perversion of Europe's technology and art wrought by the Commandant's mad ambitions. Civilization, in this inverted world, creates moral wilderness; science creates lies. Carefully crafted and allusive, this blazing portrait of Australia's colonial past will surely spread Flanagan's reputation among American readers. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; First Trade Paper Edition edition (December 26, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802139590
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802139597
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #61,529 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 71 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on June 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Writing one of the must unusual and imaginative books I've read in a long time, Flanagan presents a multi-leveled novel which is full of wry, sometimes hilarious, observations about people and history, at the same time that it is a scathing indictment of colonialism's cruelties and its prison system, in particular. Almost schizophrenic in its approach, the novel jerks the reader back and forth from delighted amusement to horrified revulsion in a series of episodes that clearly parallel the unstable inner life of main character William Buelow Gould, who lives in "a world that demanded reality imitate fiction."

Sentenced to life imprisonment on an island off the coast of Tasmania, Gould cleverly plays the survival game, ingratiating himself with the authorities through his willingness to paint whatever they want-species of fish for the surgeon, fake Constable landscapes for the turnkey Pobjoy, murals for the Commandant's great Mah-jong Hall, and backdrops for his railroad to nowhere. It is through the fish paintings that Gould paints for himself, however, that he tries to hang onto his sanity against overwhelming cruelty, continuing to believe that life has meaning, though "[it] is a mystery...and love the mystery within the mystery."

This is not an easy book. The action, such as it is, is all filtered through Gould's mind, and that is shaky, at best. In a few passages, Gould (and Hammett, the speaker who opens the novel) describe dream-like reactions to events, reflecting their mental states (not magic realism). When the last hundred pages become surreal, the reader is well-prepared to accept the strange events which unfold.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Kendall VINE VOICE on September 4, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In the reviews that are printed in the Grove Press Trade edition, I counted 22 renowned authors the critics cite with whom to compare Flanagan. The list is rather impressive and includes Joyce, Melville, Conrad, Rabelais, Borges, Hemingway, Marquez, Swift, Morrison, Pynchon, Sterne, Dante, Ovid, de Quincey, Heller, Dickens, Camus, Faulkner, Fielding, Smollet, Dostoevsky and, by inference, Peter Carey (the reference is to Carey's character, Ned Kelly in The True History of the Kelly Gang). Throw in a reference to Wuthering Heights (in terms of the book's lingering effect upon the reader's imagination) and you see the sort of playing field Flannagan is occupying. In terms of critical acclaim, the guy has arrived.
The praise is justified. Great novels introduce us to fully realized worlds, which burst forth from singular imaginations. This is just such a work. As T.S. Elliot noted, great literature also connotes, contains and reexpresses the great literature of the past. As you can infer from the number of references cited, this book acomplishes that.
Great works also contain great characters and William Buelow Gould, "sloe-souled, green-eyed, gap-toothed, shaggy-haired & grizzle-gutted" is as large and expressive a character as has been penned in recent literature. He's witty, expansive, loveable, colorful and as dimensional as they come. He's unforgettable, as are several of the other characters in the novel, most notably the penitentiary surgeon, Mr. Lempriere, in his passionate quest to become another Linnaeus, fellow convict Capois Death, who represents the life-force irrepressible.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By The Spinozanator VINE VOICE on October 8, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
...was my reaction at the end of many pages amongst the first 50-60 - and that was after more than one reread of various sentences and paragraphs. I retreated to Amazon's book reviews to see if there was just cause that I should stay the course. Armed with an overview, I tried it again.

I'm used to straight-forward non-fiction. This book has lots of things going for it, but clarity is not one of them, especially at the beginning. The earthy dialogue and Mark Twain-style truisms kept me going. Eventually, I got used to Flanagan's style and could skip most of the rereads - I came to appreciate the beauty of his sentences, didn't try to go fast, and got caught up in the story.

The one-liners - "When (dirty word that starts with sh) is discovered to be valuable, poor people will be born without arseholes" - and such, appear on at least every other page, and lengthier discourses on the human condition punctuate every surreal idiotic adventure. Each ridiculous character is caricaturized and Flanagan produces a truly absurd cast.

Most of the book is monologue from the main character, who "never pretended to be other than where I was on the ladder - at the bottom. Competition wasn't so fierce, my manner was not so threatening, & a few holes in the market opened up for me...opportunity for me to mollynog with some of the ladies - fine or less fine, I was never that fussed - and in the main it was fine. Did I say tedious? Well, yes, that too, but it had the virtue of rhythm & the pleasure of certainty."

Anyway, Gould (a name he steals) is orphaned in England at an early age.
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