GOULD'S BOOK OF FISH
Release date: 04/01/2002
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.