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the complete review - fiction
Gould's Book of Fish
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- A Novel in Twelve Fish
- Awarded the Commonwealth Prize, 2002
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B+ : enjoyable, impressive work
See our review for fuller assessment.
Impressed, and many very enthusiastic
From the Reviews:
- "Richard Flanagan has written a book that's THIS BIG, surely the slipperiest, most outrageous novel of the year. (...) As the narrative loops back on itself in a series of mind-bending post-structural tricks, Flanagan develops a grander and more ghastly vision that leaps beyond his country's history toward the biggest questions that love and language can pose. The current is dangerously strong here, but the water is irresistible, and once again Flanagan is a death-defying guide." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
- "It makes for a book at war with itself, trumping ghastly fact with outrageous fiction, until extremities turn the reader indifferent. The historic impulse seems superseded by a mystic-holistic vision that is simultaneously a defence of a discursive literary style" - Will Cohu, Daily Telegraph
- "You read this novel, which has won this year's Commonwealth Writers' prize, with the hot breath of its author down your neck. If you don't know how to take his circles-within-circles narrative, he'll tell you. By the end, you may have been dazzled and moved; you may have laughed; you may have vomited -- torture, shit and putrescence are everywhere; but whatever else, you will have had your aesthetics shaken. (...) This is an exhausting book, jumping with ideas, and flawed only in not quite having the courage of its author's brilliant imagination." - The Economist
- "Certainly, this is one of the most fatiguingly inventive novels to have been published in recent years. It presents us with a thoroughly confusing, wilfully convoluted and ultimately less than satisfying plot. (...) There is so much to savour in this rolling, picaresque tale of grotesques and their progress: so much unfettered imagination, so much sly irony and comic anarchy. (...) But Flanagan's delight in writing too often gives way to a fatal fascination with postmodern manoeuvre, smart-aleck self-referentiality and an unconvincing transcendentalism." - Alex Clark, The Guardian
- "It makes very entertaining reading. (...) Gould's Book of Fish is an ambitious book, and it's hardly surprising that, occasionally, it doesn't quite come off. Some readers will probably mutter about unearned grievances, and others will be repelled by the extremely high level of bookishness. (...) But Flanagan somehow makes it work on the page" - Christopher Tayler, London Review of Books
- "(B)y turns enchanting, bemusing and irritating. (...) (I)t's so hallucinatory and fantastical -- so often interrupted by asides or out-of-order recollections -- that the reader feels, finally, buffeted and confused." - Caroline Fraser, The Los Angeles Times
- "Character doesn't have much of a role in Gould's Book of Fish; neither do dialogue or plot. (...) Gould's Book of Fish gestures towards the pictorial in more than typographical ways, but in the end it's a game of words alone." - Eleanor Birne, The Independent
- "Gould's Book of Fish is a virtuoso exercise in period pastiche, a prison diary, a caustic critique of colonialism, a raunchy Georgian picaresque romp taking in three continents, a study of insanity, a meditation on art and nature, and a witty, self-conscious postmodern construct. It makes True History of the Kelly Gang seem comparatively thin and monotonous." - John Dugdale, New Statesman
- "Finally, however, the book resembles only itself, a serene, chilling vision of human life as comparable to the life of fish" - The New Yorker
- "(A) wondrous, phantasmagorical meditation on art and history and nature (...) It is a novel that weds the cacophonous digressions and philosophical asides of Tristram Shandy to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez; a novel that welds a Joycean love of language to a billowing, Melvillian vision of the world." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "Flanagan has a terrific narrative energy (.....) The disadvantage for the reader, in a novel of phantasmagoric happenings, is that these are apt to take the place of mundane but engaging devices like plot, dialogue, character." - James Campbell, The New York Times Book Review
- "In its persistent concern with transformations, melding and minglings, and their opposites -- fixity, category and class -- Gould's Book of Fish is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, with their endless transmogrifications, their portmanteau creatures and their jumps of scale and size. (...) What makes Gould's Book of Fish remarkable is its reconciliation of metafictionality with humanity." - Robert MacFarlane, The Observer
- "Among last year's crop of weirdly inventive faux historical novels, none was weirder or more inventive than Richard Flanagan's third book" - Jonathan Heawood, The Observer
- "Gould’s Book of Fish is a thoroughly arresting post-modern artefact. This is, on the one hand, its great advantage -- that sense of a dazzling imagination reaching out to manipulate past time -- and, on the other, its singular drawback, in that, in the last resort, the reader is being invited not to immerse himself in an invented world but to admire a performance. (...) Full marks to Richard Flanagan for his powers of pastiche and his imaginative range, but we have been here before. Repeatedly." - D.J.Taylor, The Spectator
- "Flanagan is a vivid, voluptuous, exhilarating writer, and Gould's Book of Fish an intensely interesting novel. But the anarchic, unmistakable originality of real genius is not quite here, and to pretend otherwise is inevitably to disappoint." - Jane Shilling, Sunday Telegraph
- "Gould's Book of Fish is a masterpiece -- not because its dubious, lurid world is so convincing, but because it forces its readers to question the dubious, colourless places we have learnt to inhabit." - John Burnside, The Times
- "(A)n account which is both an artful meditation on art itself and an eloquent indictment of the colonial establishment of the Australian nation." - Stephen Abell, Times Literary Supplement
- "Flanagan deals less with fish than with colonialism, exploitation and reinvention. The novel is not for squeamish readers. (...) Nor it is a novel for readers driven by the conventions of plot and dialogue. Little of either is found here. Gould, a serial storyteller, is addicted to digressions" - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
- "(B)y turns bawdy and pensive, moving and abrasive, visionary and squalid, apocalyptic and confessional." - Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post
- "Mit Samthandschuhen will dieser Roman gelesen werden. Selten sind Inhalt und Gestalt eines Buches eine derart perfekte Verbindung eingegangen. Das ganzheitliche Erzählprojekt des Richard Flanagan, hier wurde es Gesamtkunstwerk. Den Buchmachern vom Berlin Verlag muss es einen Heidenspaß gemacht haben. Den Lesern tut es das auch." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt
- "Goulds Buch der Fische ist nämlich, sosehr es sich auch in den Genres des Gefangenschaftsepos, der australischen Landesgeschichte, des Schelmenromans, der Wissenschaftsparodie und so weiter suhlen mag, zuallererst eine auf Virtuosität angelegte literarische Trickkiste, eine monströse Fiktionsmaschine, die sich selbst beständig den Boden unter den Füßßen wegzieht." - Friedhelm Rathjen, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish is a very appealing book.
For one, it is very attractively presented and packaged.
The Gould of the title is an historical figure, a painter, and his marvelous fish-illustrations are reproduced here, one for each of the twelve sections of the novel.
In addition, the type in each section is printed in a different colour ink (some, admittedly, very subtle variations) -- as Gould is only able to manufacture ink in certain colours to pen the tale.
(All the colours are relatively dark -- there's no need to worry about eye-strain or such.)
Due recognition should be accorded to Mary Callahan, responsible for the design of this volume, and to the publishers that have faithfully reproduced the original Australian edition.
Form is part and parcel of the whole -- and what a whole.
Gould's Book of Fish is, indeed, more than a single book.
The first section is set in the present, narrated by a faker who bought old furniture which he then "further distressed with every insult conceivable".
He chances across the Book of Fish by an early 19th century Tasmanian convict by the name of William Buelow Gould, the book "a dreadful hodgepodge" in different coloured ink.
Everyone is convinced the book is a fake: "the story discredited it so completely".
History tells a very different tale from what Gould does, and no one the book-finder consults is willing to doubt history.
It looks to be just another "Australian literary fraud".
The finder reads the book, fascinated by its "self-illuminating cover" and its seemingly never-ending text -- and by the contents.
But then the book disappears (or so he says -- no one is to be trusted in these pages) -- leading him to reinvent it, to recreate the text as best he remember it.
And then begins Gould's Book of Fish, now telling the misadventures of the 19th-century convict Billy Gould (in a beautiful touch this part of the tale begins on page 41, noting "the first 40 pages of Gould's notebook are missing; his journal begins on page 41").
Gould has one great talent -- he is an artist.
It helps keep him alive, though equally often seems to get him into trouble.
But Gould seems destined always to be in trouble.
Getting himself carted off to Van Diemen's Land (modern Tasmania) he survived in and out of prison in that new frontier largely thanks to his artistic talents.
There are other adventures along the way -- he knew American bird-painter Audubon too -- but where he goes bad things happen.
His destiny is Tasmania -- and prison -- and that is where most of the novel is set.
Flanagan spins a fantastic world here, beginning with the daily flooding cell in which Gould is incarcerated for much of the time, working between tides to tell his story.
Life is brutal in the colony, in and out of prison.
But Gould's story also tells of a very different world from what is recorded in the official records.
Madmen realize the wildest imaginable schemes there -- elaborate constructs that have no place in that world and come at huge costs.
The prisoners are roundly and soundly and continually abused -- though others fare even worse.
There are horrible fates here, wildly imagined by Flanagan.
In contrast there are always the delicate pictures from Gould -- though Gould himself is anything but delicate, and himself responsible for a good deal of the trouble he gets himself into.
But the drawings, and the fish-paintings especially, are something he can fall back upon, the one thing that seems to (and eventually quite literally does) save him.
Literature -- and the ease with which records (and with them all history) is easily falsified -- is always significant in the book.
There are many written records here; almost none, Gould's included, can be counted upon as being reliable.
It's a tough game Flanagan plays (it's been done before, you know), but he does it quite well.
There's loads of clever stuff here, from the explanations for the different ink-colours employed to the fish(y) tales Gould relates.
The novel is a mix of meditations and wild stories, jumping to and fro, each outlandish scene to be superseded by one stranger still.
One of the characters, Jorgen Jorgensen, is described as having read too many books in his youth, only to find "that the world did not correspond to anything he had read."
The author maintains:
Books were consistent, yet people were not.
Books dealt in cause & effect, yet life was inexplicable disorder.
Nothing was as it was in a book
Flanagan is clearly trying to create, with Gould's Book of Fish, a book that is much closer to life.
Ultimately, however, he relies too much on literary convention to truly succeed.
(Spelling out, as above, what he means doesn't help either.)
It's a bustling, far-flung novel, but easily recognizable as a novel nonetheless -- and ultimately hardly more life-like than most.
Gould's Book of Fish is full of fine and fun invention, and good and gripping stories well told -- with some very unreliable narrators.
The larger tale and the smaller episodes are all enjoyable (though some of the brutality quite shocking).
It's a very good book -- diminished only, ironically, by its very effort at being a different kind of über-book (and by constantly reminding readers of that determined effort).
Still: certainly worthwhile.
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Gould's Book of Fish:
William Buelow Gould:
Other books by Richard Flanagan under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Australian literature at the complete review
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About the Author:
Australian author Richard Flanagan was born in 1961 and has won numerous literary prizes for his first three novels.
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© 2002-2018 the complete review
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