This is a family story where an off-the-rails daughter living in a caravan gives birth to a fish. Our narrator (first person, never named, so I’ll call him the Fish’s uncle) is pretty clear about this. The thing being held up to be admired is an oddity, slightly revolting, not quite human. A thing with a gulping lips, a rubbery mouth. With gills, and an overwhelming fishy smell. What kind of creature the baby is we never really learn and this makes the whole story intensely curious. Although the Fish’s uncle refers to ‘it’ and ‘the Fish’ or ‘our Fish’ throughout, the others give it a masculine pronoun and the Fish is named after his grandfather, Colin Montgomery. The Fish grows up and goes to school, leaves school, goes to work in the family junk yard, goes on holiday. He may be a boy with some kind of horrendous congenital disability or the horror may belong to the view of the Fish’s uncle but we, the readers, are unwillingly (for me, anyway) made complicit in the relegation of the Fish to ‘freak’. The Fish is part of the family and loved even, with a kind of every-family-has-its-cross-to bear embarrassment, but an object who is is given no internal life of his own. We meet him as onlookers – never communicate directly with him, never try to understand.
This makes this book one of the hardest I have ever reviewed. Lloyd Jones is messing with me, telling me things that happen and are observed but not letting me ask questions and making me extremely uncomfortable. There is no helpful character who steps in to explain the Fish (I feel so crass joining in calling him ‘the Fish’ but we kind of fall into the Fish’s uncle’s wavelength on this). I really don’t know why this character is so crucial to the story and yet we are left feeling so ambiguous and confused about him. Lloyd Jones just dumps us in this family – and there’s death and loss and disaster and drowning and drugs and prostitution, it’s full-on family life – and the absolutely brilliant thing is that he doesn’t explain any of it. I’m left an emotional jelly turned out on a plate wondering where the mould went.
Lloyd Jones is not the sort of author to tell you what to think and feel.
The Fish’s uncle becomes a writer and tells you what happens but offers no insight other than his narrow, slightly unreliable view on the world. It’s your job, reader, to understand your own reaction to this story. How uncomfortable are you feeling and why, specifically? (There are lots of right answers to that one).
If you want a challenging book that really makes you think – and not in an abstract sense but in an extremely personal and existential way – get hold of The Fish. I’d really like someone else to tell me what to make of it.
Confronted with this family, how will you react?