This book is written from the perspective of an inmate at Van Dieman's Land (which later became Tasmania) back in the 1800's when Australia was largely one huge prison camp for Britain. He taught himself how to draw and ends up in a rather cushy job at the prison working for the prison doctor drawing fish. The doctor hopes to get himself into a British scientific journal of sorts by submitting these drawings of Australian fish that are largely unknown back in Britain.
Each chapter of the book starts with a beautiful rendering of one of these fish. On a side note, these drawings were one of the reasons I bought this book. This was another book I found at The Dollar Store. I didn't want to purchase it because it wasn't a first edition, but the book was so lush and beautiful, I couldn't resist it. Between the fish pictures in the book, the gorgeous gold lettering in the title, the purple frame on the dust jacket and the saturated gold on the spine I was head over heals in love without having even read it! Plus, it is a cloth covered book and the endpapers look like they are marbled. They really aren't, but they look it, and it just adds to the overall appeal of the book.
But, back to the story line. The book begins in modern Australia. A scoundrel of a man hunts down furniture and odds and ends at flea markets and then makes them over to be antiques and sells them to the unsuspecting tourists. On one of his trips round the flea markets, he finds a book written by the aforementioned inmate. It is the pictures of the fish and in and around the fish is the story of what happens to this inmate at Van Dieman's Land. And thus begins the fantastical reading journey to the 1800s; to a penal colony full of strange characters and even more bizarre happenings.
Beware that this book has a few violent scenes and some swear words. If that isn't your thing, you've been forewarned.
An after note: I noticed at the beginning of the book when I read it, that it had a note about the pictures of the fish being in The Allport Library and Museum of Tasmania. At the time, I was confused as to whether the author was pulling our collective legs, or whether the book was real. (I hadn't finished reading it yet.) I finally went and looked it up, and I am excited to report, that the main character of the book, William Buelow Gould is in fact a real person. The book itself, is a work of fiction however. Gould did indeed draw the fish however, and you can see the fish here. I found another website that actually talks a little bit about Gould's life too. It has his fish pictures as well.