A magical, literary novel puts a surreal spin on a coming-of-age seafaring saga.
Among the amazements of the 10th novel by the British, award-winning Birch is that it is the first to be published in America. Its narrator is a young boy named Jaffy Brown, who begs to be described as a Dickensian “street urchin,” but whose life changes irrevocably after he encounters a tiger on a street near the Thames and proves uncommonly brave when the animal takes the boy into its mouth. The tiger belongs to Charles Jamrach, an importer of exotic animals who recruits Jaffy to go to sea on a whaling expedition that has a much more ambitious goal: to capture a dragon. Among his shipmates will be Tim, another boy with whom Jaffy bonds but who is very competitive, creating a tension complicated by Jaffy’s attraction to Tim’s sister. All of this is narrated in retrospect, decades later, after Jaffy has discovered how it feels to be “stuck between a mad God and merciless nature.” Yet it retains a sense of childlike wonder in its lyrical prose, as the line between what Jaffy is experiencing and what he is dreaming blurs the longer he is at sea: “Nowhere clearer than the ocean for a bright state of being, of falling with constant clarity into the vortex inside...Sometimes it felt as if the stars out there, far from all land, were screaming. Hundreds of miles blaring at your head. So beautiful, that night, waking in the sky with the screaming stars all around.” The ill-fated voyage finds the dragon haunting the young mariner much the same as the albatross did Coleridge’s ancient mariner. Before it is over Jaffy will have his first taste of death. And worse. If prayer was the only passable path to salvation, Jaffy felt “it had become long since plain that God didn’t answer. Not so’s the average idiot could understand anyway.”
Jaffy’s experience could well move the reader as profoundly as it changed the narrator.