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Lowly fish battle Tasmanian devil

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Fish stories have a credibility problem. Even from the most trustworthy angler, they're slippery tales. When the teller is a forger, a liar, and a thief who admits that nothing he says can be believed, you're on guard. But when he confesses that he's also a fish, you're hooked.

Richard Flanagan has written a book that's THIS BIG, surely the slipperiest, most outrageous novel of the year. Who else would dare start with a 40-page preface that describes the story we're about to read as wondrous, luminous, and captivating? This is like setting off in the morning, promising to return for lunch with a dozen five-pound bass.

The narrator of this introduction, a con artist who makes "antique" furniture for American tourists, reports that when he first found "Gould's Book of Fish," its cover glowed with purple spots that spread up his arm. He notes that each chapter was written in different colored ink made from various body fluids and natural elements. "It was," he admits, "a dreadful hodgepodge" of paper, dried fish skin, sail cloth, and burlap, all of it swimming in a narrative "that never really started and never quite finished."

As he turns the pages feverishly, they grow damp, and when he's done, there's nothing left but a puddle on the table. Distraught over the loss and infected by "an unrequited love," he determines to rewrite "Gould's Book of Fish" himself.

The publisher, Grove/Atlantic, has obliged by printing the chapters in different colored inks just like the one that got away.

What follows this alternately lyrical and bombastic introduction is the weird and wild testimony of William Gould, a 19th-century convict on Sarah Island, the most notorious penal colony in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), then the most notorious penal system in the world. This is, after all, a place where hairy devils shriek through the brush.

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