A NovelBook - 2011
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This wracking maritime psychodrama follows a young boy from his humble beginnings as a child laborer in late 19th-century London to the South Pacific, finding bits of whimsy and beauty in a chaotic story. Jaffy Brown's bleak young life in the slums takes a bright turn when he is carried off by an escaped tiger and wins the notice of Charles Jamrach, a purveyor of exotic animals. Jamrach gives Jaffy a job, and soon the boy is sent on a years-long journey to the South Pacific, where he is supposed to find a dragon. It becomes slowly evident that the dragon quest, which is dispatched in an anticlimax, works as a macguffin for a dark and drifting tale of woe on the high seas as Jaffy's expedition is beset by disasters sinister and otherworldly. Birch's writing is assured and enticing, and she's especially talented at creating floating, still moments amid the action, often as Jaffy pauses to foreshadow or ruminate. Readers will spend much time wondering where this gratifyingly bizarre story is going, though Birch's writing chops do much to smooth the way
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