A Fish Trapped Inside The Wind is an artful piece of magic carried off by a master illusionist. It follows a significant cast of characters, all residing in the small town of Villon in Belgium, linked in the most surprising and subtle ways. There is Guy Foulette, the illusionist. Marie Ledoux, the seer. Father Leo, the lover. Raoul, the seeker. Liesl Grafft, the stranger. Casimir, the player. And a few other key characters: Poisson, Marie’s alcoholic husband. Phillipe, a young boy and son of a local doctor. The appellations of the main cast, like much of what is contained in the pages of A Fish Trapped Inside The Wind, are often illusionary, temporal and deceiving. Hold on to that thought.
If it seems like this is an over- large cast to handle in what is only a 260 page book, you’d be right, but Christien Gholson not only carries it off with a deftness of hand like that of a magician, but manages to give these characters more depth, history and complexity than the sole protagonists of many novels I’ve read. The way these characters are interlinked, emotionally, physically, historically, becomes a rich tapestry which lends the novel credence and reality. Only real people could have such convoluted pasts. Yet, at the same time, we are never lost in a quagmire of backstory. Rather, the plot accelerates onwards whilst simultaneously giving us information we need to understand why our characters behave certain ways. This also creates a kind of kaleidoscopic empathy; characters such as Poisson, who at first seem repulsive and two-dimensional, suddenly acquire depths as we look at them through new prisms. Each of the characters is fascinating and utterly authentic; I can honestly say I was never frustrated at any point with having to read one story over another, they are all interesting, and all contain hidden layers of meaning which reveal themselves the harder you look.
Magic is always present in A Fish Trapped Inside The Wind, both the deceptive, trickster’s kind, and the real thing. It is pleasant, in a world so relentlessly rationalistic and materialistic, to find a novel that so richly reflects the spiritual, natural and downright magical wonder of this world whilst never coming across as twee, naive or uninformed. Think of a film like Calvary and you will understand something of the tone: black humour juxtaposed with deep, sombre insight into the world, the constant hint of some greater meaning. Marie Ledoux’s ability to see things: dreams, shapes, visions, pasts, is entirely convincing. But, as with all great literature, it is not one view that is expressed but many: we are also party to and sympathise with Guy’s fatalistic view that all things in life are, indeed, illusion; with Casimir’s worship of sexual conquest; with Liesl’s heretical, sometimes doubtful feelings about God; with Poisson’s rejection of everything. Each portrait is humane, warm and sensitive, not shying away from the frightening aspects of human desperation, but never presenting it in caricature either.
The central mystery of the story, the ‘inciting incident’, to coin a term, is the sudden miraculous appearance of thousands of dead fish about the town which have seemingly dropped from the sky. The appearance of these fish is a catalyst: some townspeople believing them to be the work of Guy Foulette and a dance troupe called Contexture as a protest against the awful toxic waste-dumps of the local factory. Others believe they are a divine message. Some think they are a practical joke played by some of the more misanthropic members of Villon. The most startling thing is that the fish, in some way or other, trigger memories and associations in all of our principle characters, causing them to examine and reflect on their lives in new and intriguing ways: re-interpreting scripture they grew up with, re-examining relationships they took for granted, looking back over scenes from their past and re-contextualising them. This leads to many intriguing confrontations, revelations, and ultimately, draws all of the characters together in a final kermesse march which is at once salubrious religious festival and political protest rally.
What truly makes A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind a masterpiece, however, quite apart from the startling prose, compelling characters and subtle mystery, is the philosophical depth behind every scene, every conversation and every nuanced interaction. The philosophy is not ponderous, nor does it intrude on the story or encumber the plot, but by slow increments, sly turns of phrase, compelling imagery, becomes apparent. There are deep insightful commentaries on the nature of God and religion, the nature of magic and illusion, the nature of love, and most central of all: what the self is. It is this ‘slippery’ concept that holds together the whole novel. All the characters, in a way, are expressions of a quest to discover the self. Raoul, most obviously as the ‘seeker’, intends to do this through his travelling (he is following in the footsteps of the poet Rimbaud all across the world). Liesl is trying to find it through settling down, finding a place she can belong, no longer being ‘the stranger’. Father Leo, through his secret and forbidden love of Marie, but also, his love of his congregation, his love of God. Marie, through her foresight – she is, after all, the ‘seer’. Marie is gifted with the ability to see the future, to touch objects and see their pasts. Casimir is trying to find himself through sex. And Guy, perhaps most significantly to the core meaning of the novel, is trying to do it through his art, his illusion-craft. Each of these callings leads the characters towards a final revelation, many of which are intertwined with the fates of the other characters.
The ending to A Fish Trapped Inside The Wind is nothing short of earth-shattering. It is Nolan-esque in that its power is in creating a moment of understanding for one of the characters and for the reader, a moment where the whole meaning of what you have been reading slides into place and you understand that many elements of the novel have been just as much of a ‘distraction’ as Guy’s performative sleight-of-hand. It is also Nolan-esque in that several apparently dispirit threads come together in a dramatic and unanticipated way, mirroring the coalescence of meaning that occurs. If you want a comparative title, whose ending lands with a similar power, then City of the Iron Fish (strange coincidence they both feature fish in the title – or perhaps there is some great truth I am not party to?) by Simon Ings would be one, another profound novel that questions the nature of reality. I would say that A Fish Trapped Inside The Wind has greater resonance, warmth and humanity in it however, and ultimately, left me more joyfully shaken.
A Fish Trapped Inside The Wind is more than a good book, it’s a great one. It’s the kind of book that comes around once every ten or twenty years. And among many other things it has done, it’s renewed my faith in the arts of illusion, of which writing is one.
A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind was published by Parthian Books on 1 June 2011.
You can purchase a copy of A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind from Foyles Bookshop.
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Review by Joseph Sale