‘ … these days I am no longer sure what is memory and what is revelation. How faithful the story you are about to read is to the original is a bone of contention with the few people I had allowed to read the original Book of Fish … certainly, the book you will read is the same as the book I remember reading, and I have tried to be true both to the wonder of that reading and to the extraordinary world that was Gould’s.’
This is Sid Hammet’s cautionary introduction to the reader. Given his penchant for, or at least hapless vulnerability to, equivocation, obfuscation, and obliquity, he might just as well be Sid Hamlet. Perhaps he is – identity is only one of the concepts that succumbs to subversion in this extraordinary, deceptively rollicking, yet often horrific story.
Hammet makes a dicey living in Hobart belting together fake period furniture for the tourists and ‘ageing’ it with libations of his own piss. One winter’s morning ‘that was to prove fateful but at the time merely seemed freezing’, he is fossicking in a junk shop when he finds, buried beneath a stack of long out-of-date women’s magazines, a weird book with a curious, intermittently luminous cover. This turns out to be William Buelow Gould’s Book of Fish. Transported to Sarah Island in 1828, convict Gould, ‘in the supposed interest of science’, was ordered to paint all the fish caught in the island’s waters. The paintings, however, are annotated heavily with Gould’s own scrawled, multicoloured (because of his varied and exotic sources of ‘ink’) journal. Hammet, obsessed with the book, discovers that, in some odd way, it is never-ending. Every time he consults it, he discovers some new section, or a scrap of paper drops from its prison within the pages to add yet more substance.