Truthis a fish. So speaks the hero of Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (Atlantic Books, £7.99) by Richard Flanagan, a novel by name, but in reality, an extended dramatic monologue. Sent to Australia for every crime you’d care to mention, Billie Gould is given the task by the prison surgeon, one of the many certifiable characters in the novel, to paint exotic fish for the Royal Academy back home in London.
Despite being imprisoned in the Tasmanian settlement of Sarah Island, perhaps the most brutal in the whole British Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century, Gould maintains his honesty, integrity and most importantly, his sense of humour. His aim in the bleak world of beatings, rape and cells which flood every night is to paint the beauty of fish and the cruelty of men. As he writes in one of his early chapters, sorry, early fish, “I am William Buelow Gould… I tell you that I will try to show you everything, mad & cracked & bad as it was”.
It is easy to spot stylistic similarities between Gould’s Book of Fish and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. In the descriptions of their shared homeland, both employ a nostalgic prose, the language always maintaining a poetic element (even when describing the way Gould tosses his turds at the prison warden). Likewise the use of a central metaphor around which the narrative revolves is common to both books. Carey chooses a glass church to reflect the vulnerability of the protagonist’s sense of self, one that is liable to crack at any moment while Flanagan, typically, invests something more prosaic, a blowfish for example, with a force of emotion quite unexpected.
The juxtaposition of slimy sea creatures with the beautiful notions of love, truth and freedom lends itself toward bathos, and generally the tone of this novel, which breezes through racism, politics, and technological progress, maintains an objective distance through facetiousness.
The humour, which ranges from the scatological to the satirical to the surreal (I wonder if the author’s mother liked the book’s dedication to her- “My mother is a fish”) is as integral to the style as is the use of Dickensian language and characterisation.
Behind the humour, however, one finds a novel of great merit and depth, constructed in the most poetic language, and not at all about fish.
ARCHIVE: 3rd Week TT 2003