Imagine reading a book that is not linear but still describes a chronological story. A book that goes in circles. One full circle, one half circle and one more. A book that is different every time you read it. A book that once you've finished reading it you are not sure you've actually read it, and hence cannot be sure if you would be able to read it again even if you wanted to. That is what Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish is like.
The blurb on the back of the book says:
Once upon a time that was called 1828, before all the living things on the land and the fishes in the sea were destroyed, there was a man named William Buelow Gold, a convict in Van Diemen's Land who fell in love with a black woman and discovered too late that to love is not safe. Silly Billy Gould, invader of Australia, liar, murderer, forger, fantasist, condemned to live in the most brutal penal colony in the British Empire, and there ordered to paint a book of fish. Once upon a time, miraculous things happened....
This is about as good or as bad as you can get at describing what this book is about. On the surface of it the book is the life story of William Buelow Gold, just as it says on the back. Or maybe it isn't. Because at the same time it's a book about a man finding Gould's Book of Fish and ends up losing it, and hence tries to recreate it by writing it again. But from another perspective it could be the ramblings from a complete lunatic as well. So many things are fantastic, amazing and unbelievable, but at the same time entertaining, believable and almost logic. Everything is mixed in this book. History, aboriginal traditions, cruelty, eroticism, books, sex, torture, fish, Voltaire, painting, pigs. The list is endless.
I just wanted to tell a story of love & it was about fish & it was about me & it was about everything. But because I could not paint everything, because I could only paint fish & my love & because I could not even do that very well, you may not think it much of a story. – Gould's Book of Fish
In spite of that rather negative view of the author's own abilities, the book is absolutely fantastic. As a story in twelve fish it's imaginative, evocative and entertaining all the way through. There is a sanity and insanity to it that means that you end up not knowing what to think. Not about anything. It's also the most self-referential book I have read since Milan Kundera's Immortality, but in a completely different way.
I notice that I'm starting to get about as obscure as the book itself, not really knowing in which direction I'm going but still with a very clear destination. And that is for you, dear reader, to ignore what I have said here and read the book for yourself. It's well worth the effort.
And if you ever find an old book in a thrift shop and the cover kind of starts glowing when you touch it, buy whatever it lies in, take the book home and enjoy the adventure.
I got this book from my Secret Santa 2004! Thanks!