"Gould's Book of Fish" by Richard Flanagan (2001)
"I had begun with the comforting conclusion that books are the tongue of divine wisdom, and had ended only with the thin hunch that all books are grand follies, destined forever to be misunderstood."
This is the second of Richard Flanagan's books to be reviewed here. I read/reviewed The Narrow Road to the Deep North last month.
Published 12 years before The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Gould's Book of Fish is much more lyrical in tone. It begins with the discovery of Gould's book in a junk shop, from there moves to a mythical history of Tasmania, and ends with the kind of tragedy that the Greeks were famous for.
And if you liked The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I can guarantee that you'll love Gould's Book of Fish. It's everything that The Narrow Road is and more: the doomed infrastructure project, the fire near the end, and the tragedy of human suffering painted against the paradoxical/beautiful nature of our existence. It's all here, but Gould's Book of Fish does a far better job of covering similar territory in a different century. It's sad and whimsical, and when the various story threads come together it's truly something to behold.
If I have a complaint about this book, it's that it moves a bit slowly, but then again the slow parts help build up momentum for the big finish. Even the greatest novels are slow at times, and it is often the case that these "slow" bits give to the novel a weight it wouldn't otherwise have. A great book should feel like a journey, right down to the parts where your legs get tired, and you wonder when you'll finally get there.
I have the feeling that The Narrow Road to the Deep North was much better received than Gould's Book of Fish, but I also think that it will be for his book of fish that Richard Flanagan is best remembered. The Narrow Road to the Deep North might be a triumph of research, but Gould's Book of Fish was both a labor of love and a truly original work of fiction.