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Gould's Book of Fish


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Flanagan (The Sound of One Hand Clapping) has written a Tasmanian version of Rimbaud's Season in Hell, a mesmerizing portrait of human abjection and sometimes elation set in a 19th-century Down Under penal colony. A small-time forger of antiques in contemporary Tasmania finds a mysterious illustrated manuscript that recounts in harrowing detail the rise and fall of a convict state on Sarah Island, off the Tasmanian coast, in the 1830s. The text is penned by William Gould, a forger and thief (and an actual 19th-century convict) shipped from England to a Tasmanian prison run as a private kingdom by the Commandant, a lunatic tyrant in a gold mask rumored to have been a convict himself. The prison world consists of a lower caste of convicts tormented with lengthy floggings, vile food and various mechanical torture devices by a small number of officers and officials. Gould finagles his way into the good graces of the island surgeon, Tobias Achilles Lempriere, a fat fanatic of natural science, who has Gould paint scientific illustrations of fish, with the goal of publishing the definitive ichthyological work on Sarah Island species. In Gould's hands, however, the taxonomy of fish becomes his testimony to the bizarre perversion of Europe's technology and art wrought by the Commandant's mad ambitions. Civilization, in this inverted world, creates moral wilderness; science creates lies. Carefully crafted and allusive, this blazing portrait of Australia's colonial past will surely spread Flanagan's reputation among American readers. (Apr.) FYI: Gould's Book of Fish looks as good as it reads: it's printed in six different ink colors (to match how Gould wrote in red, with his blood; in violet, from the spines of a sea urchin; etc., and illustrated with paintings by the real William Gould. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Flanagan may very well become Tasmania's man of letters; in this fine follow-up to Death of a River Guide, he again explores the 19th-century world of convicts and colonists from one man's perspective. William Buelow Gould's penchant for thievery may have landed him in prison cells throughout his life, but his talent for painting still lifes la Audubon always allowed him small improvements in his station. The novel shows Gould providing paintings according to his patron's whims, culminating with his task of creating an illustrated taxonomy of Tasmania's sea life, to be appropriated by prison surgeon and general eccentric Tobias Achilles Lempriere for fame and glory. When misadventure claims the life of Lempriere, Gould fears retribution and arranges a cover-up, but more complex problems rear their heads: Gould's fish are becoming more than just fish, and Gould himself is becoming something other than human. Flanagan's darkly humorous tale is impressive in its ability to cross seamlessly the borders between the realistic and fantastic and carries a wonderful sense of drama and satisfying closure. The unique story is accompanied by the book's novel packaging (unseen at time of review), with each chapter printed in a different color ink and original full-color artwork ostensibly by Gould prefacing each chapter. Highly recommended. Marc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

This highly original `book about a book' is such a rare novel that it almost defies description. Disillusioned furniture-maker Sid Hammet discovers the astounding `Gould's Book of Fish' half-buried in a Tasmanian antique store, `jutting out like Great Aunt Maisie's stubble, without shame and with a certain archaic vigour'. Its pages reveal the 1820s world of convict artist Billy Buelow Gould, serving time at the notorious penal colony of Sarah Island. Purely as an addition to the growing body of Australian `convict fiction', Flanagan's new novel undoubtedly succeeds. But Gould's Book of Fish is more than this. Flanagan's imagery is spectacular. Only a talented wordsmith can so stimulate the imagination to create scenes that leap so clearly from the page. The uniqueness of Gould's Book lies also in its construction and production. Set out in 12 chapters which each outline the story of how Gould came to create the different fish illustrations (handsomely reproduced), the text is strikingly printed in six different colours inherent to the story's narrative. Not since Stravinsky's Lunch can I remember such a beautifully produced and original book that straddles multiple literary genres - art, love story, Australian history and a touch of magic realism. Undoubtedly, this will be the gift this Christmas season for lovers of literary fiction and enthusiastic book collectors. Booksellers with a literary market should not underestimate this satisfying gem. Scott Whitmont is owner of Lindfield Bookshop. C. 2001 Thorpe-Bowker and contributors

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