It's an ugly fish, but a really good book

The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World's Most Coveted Fish - Emily Voigt

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley


                Personally, I think the arowana is an ugly fish.  Sorry.  I also think that Voight would agree with me.


                Thankfully, this book is highly enjoyable.


                Voight’s interest in the fish starts with a trip to a housing project in NYC.   Voight is accompanying Lt John Fitzpatrick of the State Environmental Police to talk to a man about an alligator.   Her ride along is done as part of a story that she is doing for NPR, and it is though Fitzpatrick that she hears about the arowana because there is a huge market in the illegal fish trade (at least when it comes to fish pets).   For whatever, Voight finds herself obsessing about the fish, so much so that she travels to far corners of the world to track it down.


                And it is really an ugly fish.  Voight herself wonders at her obsession, and in part, it is that self questioning, that makes the book enjoyable.


                Voight’s travels take her to the Amazon, to Singapore, and to Burma (Myanmar) when the borders to that country were more tightly controlled.   It is on that last trip that she really wonders why she is so committed to an ugly fish.  It is Voight’s honesty and her acknowledgement that her “quest” might really be an unhealthy obsession that really does draw the reader in.  You want her to really see a wild arowana even as both Voight and you are wondering about why it is so necessary to see one.


                And in part, her wonderment about the fish comes across so strongly and so well that it is hard not to want to see the fish. 


                Part of this has to do with the colorful characters that she meets, such as Kenny the Fish, who deals in arowana and who is the playboy of the fish trading world.  There is a stories of smuggling, a murder or two, and visits to fish farms that seem to be locked down tighter than Fort Knox.  Eventually, she works alongside an ichthyologist or two.


                What is interesting is how Voight seem to be the sole women in a largely male world.  In fact, all of the fish producers, collectors, and scientists that she interacts with are male.  There is detail about the mother of the one of the scientists, and she does sound like an interesting woman, but Voight seems to be the only woman.  It makes one wonder why.  Is it that the arowana appears most to men because of the status symbol aspect (Voight hints a bit at this) or is it that women want a prettier fish?


                Or do women just want furry?


                Additionally, the book is about more than just a fish.  It is about humankind’s relationship to animals, in particular to those animals we decide to domestic or “own”.  Voight looks at the difference between what was once wild and what is becoming pet.  She also examines what lies behind the laws that protect endangered species.  The arowana, for instance, is forbidden in the United States but is legal to own in several other countries.    This look at the issues surrounding the fish also includes a look at the scientific community, showing the reader that a pet is simply more than pet.


                Voight’s book not only conveys her love for the animal, but a respect, if not understanding, of the people who obsess over the fish. 


                And hey, it may be an ugly fish, but I want to see one jumping out of a lake.