A whiff of magical realism and a generous abundance of expressionistic hyperbole create the uniquely suprareal texture of this wonderful third novel from the prizewinning Australian author (The Sound of One Hand Clapping, 2000, etc.).
The story’s set at an island prison colony in Tasmania, known as Van Diemen’s Land when most of its bizarre events occur, in the early 20th century. The protagonist and primary narrator is, believe it or not, based on a real historical figure: English forger, thief, and naturally gifted artist William Buelow Gould (1903–53), who is ordered by prison “surgeon” Lempriere to make a “book of fish” containing illustrations of indigenous marine life (which are reproduced at the beginning of each chapter); in effect creating a “taxonomy” of sea creatures. Flanagan piles level upon level, as Gould’s “bellicose book . . . ,” which scholars pronounce “the insignificant if somewhat curious product of a particularly deranged mind of long ago,” is reconstructed from memory by con-man Sid Hammett—who disappears once the reader is plunged into Gould’s garrulous tales of his criminal past (including a brief time in Louisiana, where he conspired variously with “Jean Babeuf-Audubon” and poet John Keats’s ne’er-do-well brother). Gould’s book grows ever madder and more enthralling, as he traces white Australia’s genocidal mistreatment of the aborigine population, and draws appallingly vivid images of such garish figures as the colony’s scrofulous Commandant, the ghoulish Lempriere, and prison storekeeper (and renegade historian) Jorgen Jorgensen, and retells the tale of “notorious bush ranger Matthew Brady,” whose “history” rather recalls that of legendary Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. A climactic transformation, and a stunning Afterword that forces the reader to reconsider everything he has thus far learned, round off a triumphantly extravagant fiction that fully justifies its memorable antihero’s repeated boast: “My name is William Buelow Gould & my name is a song that will be sung.”
Fascinating work, and very much Flanagan’s best yet.