Saturday, June 26, 2010

Gould's Book Of Fish by Richard Flanagan

Gould's Book Of Fish tells the story of nineteenth century convict, William Bulow Gould.  A petty criminal, Gould is sentenced to life imprisonment on the most feared penal colony in existence, Sarah Island in Tasmania.  Once there, in the midst of brutal guards and routine torture of convincts, Gould finds a way to exist--he uses his talent as a forger to become an artist and paint pictures for the top authorities of the prison.

The reader meets a multitude of characters.  There is Gould, saintly one minute, crass and crude as the most villinous character the next.  There is Tobias Achilles Lempriere, the prison surgeon, who wants Gould to paint fish so that he can rival Audobon's study of birds and become a member of the Royal Society of Scientists back in England.    The Commandant has clawed his way to the top and has a vision of creating a model society based on what he understands of European society in Tasmania.  Jorgen Jorgensen is a pompous Danish clerk who writes the history of the island, and makes much of it up to hide the truth of what happens there.  Twopenny Sal is a native women who is the Commandant's mistress, and also Gould's.  Matt Brady is an escaped convict who is fabled by those still imprisoned to have made his escape and is only waiting for the right time to come back and free them all.

Above all, there is the cruelty of the island.  The prisoners are treated horribly, tortured for the smallest infractions, starved and beaten.  The authorities were often mad, and had the ultimate power of no oversight so that their smallest wishes became law.  The native people were considered less than human, and massacred offhandly, as a matter of convenience or to take what they had. 

Yet, throughout the ordeal of life on Sarah Island, Gould finds life was never sweeter.  He chronicles the true history of the prison and what was done there.  His unquenchable optimism helps him survive and even thrive at different stages. 

Richard Flanagan has created a masterpiece.  The writing is reminiscent of Charles Dickens, with many characters who are finely detailed and a plot that twists and turns, where a character mentioned offhandly in one chapter will return in a later one to play a major part.  Flanagan shows the indomitable strength of the human life and hope for a better tomorrow, while detailing the horrible things that man is capable of.  The intricate plot and writing leads the reader on a journey they will not soon forget.  The book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year as well as the winner of the Commonwealth Prize.  While not an easy read, it is one that leaves the reader challenged and satisfied.

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