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"Only a madman would open it . . .",
This review is from: Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (Hardcover)
All the stars in Amazon's firmament aren't sufficient award for this masterpiece. Flanagan uses nested metaphors like the famous Russian dolls, each exposing a new level of the same theme. Here the theme is the perception of the written word. Which of the stories told here is the valid one? Are all of them real, or all false? Lest this sound confusing, reader, take heart. Flanagan is a master storyteller and all he asks of you is a bit of patience while he unravels the life of a man beset by forces of breathtaking scope. After all, he is presenting you with the world of the British Empire.
Will a valid history of that Empire ever be written? Flanagan makes no such claim. He views its immensity from a tiny salient through the eyes of one its outcasts. William Buelow Gould is a man whose perception becomes increasingly distorted in a place that could break the strongest mind. Macquarie Harbour was a dumping ground for "hard case" convicts. Here, a thirty-two year old appears dismayingly aged. Here, all were "cobbers and dobbers" - men were mates ranged against prison authority but turning traitor against each other ["dobbing in"] when survival was the issue. Gould, an artist-forger, seems spared the worst effects of The System when he's posted to the colony's surgeon to produce watercolours of the local marine life. In this role, Flanagan takes us on a tour of "scientifick" thought of the time and its impact on people on the far reaches of the Empire - which spans the planet. Phrenology, evolution, religion of the time come to light from his skilled prose.
Gould, ever a pawn on The System's board, is taken from the surgeon to embark on a fresh enterprise. The prison Commandant has a commission for him. Gould's new project reflects the Commandant's ambitions for the colony, but we witness a new attitude in Gould as the story develops. What truly happened in this place bracketed by screaming winds and a mountain wilderness that inhibited dreams of escape? Flanagan makes Gould the only valid witness to events - at least the only one leaving a record. Can we, however, trust the words of someone recording so many irrational acts? Gould assures us: "if you can't trust a liar & a forger, a whore & an informer, a convicted murderer & a thief, you'll never understand this country." To Flanagan, that statement sums up the dilemma of Australia. Whose account of history are we to believe?
Gould is ultimately convicted of a bizarre murder and placed in a cell inundated by each day's tide. Using his marine paintings he begins the chronicle of his life in the colony. His Book of Fish, however, ranges far beyond simply a journal of events illustrated with symbolic watercolours. Flanagan assaults all written accounts as deceptive, even questioning the validity of the most mundane of books - a prison registry. The registry becomes a pivot around which Flanagan twists a skein of questions of human values. More than simply historical "truth" is under scrutiny here. What price are we prepared to pay in resolving "scientifick" issues? How can we categorize our fellow humans when we know, as Aborigine Twopenny Sal tells Gould, "Long time before, you were us." Human ancestry lies in Africa, not London, Sydney or even Ottawa. These questions haunt Gould throughout the book, and Flanagan wants them to haunt you a bit, as well. Read him and ponder them.