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Gould's Book of Fish

by Richard Flanagan

GOULD’S BOOK OF FISH isn’t a pleasant read: it’s an extraordinary, original, brave, contemporary yarn about the past that does yer ‘ead in (as my kids would say) and is about as pleasant as a punch in the face.

Billy Buelow Gould is a convict exported to Van Dieman’s Land from England who avoids the chain gang by painting fish. He tells his story from where he is incarcerated in a cell that fills with sea water at high tide and which he shares with a bloated decomposing corpse.

Gould’s voice, uneducated and rambling as it is, with its scatological and sensuous depictions of his brutal world and its Rabelaisian inhabitants, is strangely compelling. My favourite character is Mr Lempriere, the surgeon, who collects the heads of the indigenous people to send them to England for classification. With his vast bald head painted white with lead and his huge body squeezed into the costume of a Regency dandy, he is “so rotund he looked as if he had been coopered rather than conceived”. He comes to a rather gruesome end as a steaming pig’s turd and, through a series of typically ludicrous incidents, his own head is included in the collection of Craniae Tasmaniae. It becomes the prime example of the “Negroid skull from Van Diemen’s Land” which bears all the “marks of mental inferiority and racial degeneration”.

Gould’s fate is the story of Everyman, of all the people who, born at the wrong time in the wrong place, are condemned to a life of misery. Freedom eludes him until, finally, he drowns and is transformed into one of his beloved fish.

In this deliberately unreliable account, Flanagan is debunking official history, a history as fraudulent as his own fiction. At the same time he is taking a poke at all the other institutions – literature, art and science – that are put to use by the establishment to reinforce their world view. At one point in the book, Gould burns his Book of Fish along with all the convicts’ records: onto the pyre go “many, many words – that entire untrue literature of the past which had shackled & subjugated me as surely as the spiked iron collars & leg locks & jagged basils & balls & chains & headshaving – that had so long denied me my free voice and the stories I needed to tell.”

Published by Atlantic Books, 404pp.

Clare Chandler

Reading notes on GOULD'S BOOK OF FISH.

See below for more about the wines produced in Tasmania.

Tasmania Being the furthest south - 240km south of mainland Australia - Tasmania is also the coolest of the Australian wine regions. This makes it most suited to producing light elegant wines, mainly from the Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes. The weather isn't always kind here, and winemakers have a tougher time of it than, say, in the sunny Barossa Valley further north. But marginal climates often yield the finest wines, and it also means you can produce great sparkling wines too. That's certainly what happens here, it's become something of an island expertise!

To find out more about Australian wine and wine growing regions, log on to


Jenny Gordon
This book had a big thumbs down from my book group. It sounds interesting and very worthy but we almost all found it really difficult to read. We're not lightweights but this required more than a group of mothers of young children could manage. Sorry! Also we're intrigued by the guide to Tasmanian wines?!

Clare (Bookgroup Info)
Hi Jenny. Thank you for your comment. I agree it's not an easy read but we felt in the end it was worth the effort! I'm sorry your group didn't have more joy from it. When we reviewed the book we had a month devoted to Oz literature and we tied in with the Australian wine growers' assoc. who sent a couple of bottles of wine to each of our registered groups. Hence the guide to Tasmanian wine.

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