This three part novel, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, is an adventure/coming of age/survival story focusing on little Jaffy, a London street urchin in the Dickens tradition.
After spending a few years tending the animals, the story fast forwards to Jaffy going on an expedition to help capture a dragon for one of Mr. Jamrach’s wealthy clients. Jaffy volunteers to go as to not miss out on any of the fun that Tim is sure to experience. The boys will travel on a whaling ship, the Lysander, where they are expected to help hunt and harvest whales until the reach the island where the elusive dragon may or may not exist.
Jaffy learns a thing or two about sailing, and the superstition on the high seas. Some of the crew starts to voice their worries, and Jaffy realizes that:
The superstition of sailors is no more than the lone howling of miles between you and dry land and home, making you know that you are a thing that can die.
He’s going to learn that lesson pretty intimately before he finds his way home again.
Compared to how engaging the previous section was, part three felt like a bit of a throwaway. Okay, survivors head home, they try to adjust, ho-hum, yadda yadda. I get that Birch wants to show how a person adjusts to “normal” life after going through a life-threatening, traumatic experience, but it just fell flat. Maybe that’s inevitable? I don’t know.
Overall, this was a decent read. There were just a few little things that bothered me. First, when they’re in the lifeboats, it rains a lot. They’re dying of thirst – are they catching the rain? Hopefully yes, but there is no mention of it. I wanted to scream at the characters – you can drink that! Quit telling me how it feels falling on you and get to collecting it! Just a simple sentence or two would have kept me from getting distracted. Something like – “The measly two inches of rain they were able to collect did not go far in satisfying their thirst.”