Somewhere at the heart of this novel lies unapologetic, glorious madness. It revels in it. Flanagan has written something the like of which I have never experienced before. On the surface it is a tale of the penal colony system of Tasmania / Van Diemans Land, as was, back in the mid-1800s. But it is also a tale within a tale, a lost book of fish paintings and unintelligible text, that once found glows before dissolving in the hands of its discoverer…who then decides that the only thing to do is to rewrite the book from memory. And from there the madness flows.
It is based (loosely) on the convict William Buelow Gould’s life both at Macquarie Harbour and at other points around the island. The illustrations used for each chapter opening are those drawn by Gould.
There are scurrilous and untrustworthy fellow prisoners, guards, sailors, and prostitutes. And there is a pig – and following Chekhov’s dictum about a rifle in the opening scene – as the pig gets larger, eventually becoming gargantuan, you know he’s there for a dramatic reason.
There is also a railway, a comic railway, born of the vanity of the man in charge, which having nowhere else to go loops a 200 yard track endlessly. It was built, the man in charge convinced himself, so that the settlement would be ready for when civilisation sent its own railway through the vast jungles and uninhabited heartlands of Tasmania, to join up with it. Meanwhile, ‘passengers’ find themselves trapped in a rotating motion, passing some scenes of other lands and vistas, painted by the artist, to entertain them as they spin this small Dantean circle, making most of them nauseous.
The book is a joy. Flanagan is an outstanding novelist: I have never been disappointed with any of his, but funnily enough his name just doesn’t pop onto my tongue when asked to name writers I enjoy / admire. Try him.