Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish

Written by Richard Flanagan
Review by Gerald T. Burke

In 1828, a convicted forger is exiled to Van Dieman’s Island, i.e., Tasmania. Thus begin the fabulous adventures of William Buelou Gould. This liar and murderer is also an artist, so he is ordered by the penal colony’s deranged surgeon to paint a book of local fish. This allows Gould unusual freedom, so readers are introduced to characters such as the eccentric Capois Death, the delusional Commandant, Castlereagh the pig, and many others.

This fantastic tale is told by a modern narrator Sid Hammett, a cheap huckster who discovers the book of fish in a junk shop in Hobart, Tasmania. Through this narrative technique, Flanagan creates a story that is both history and fairy tale. It is comical, horrifying, and at times frighteningly real in its unreality. Frequently, characters are transformed into other characters or the story digresses, but the narrative always returns to the main plotline. This is one of the charming aspects of the novel; unfortunately, for some readers, it will be confusing and a turnoff.

Still, this labyrinthine story is a rewarding excursion into humanity’s dark history. Besides, the fish illustrations are marvelous.