Overdue Reviews: The Dragon Behind the Glass

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

Published May 24th 2016 by Scribner

Hardcover, 336 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley

25987033

A journalist’s quest to find a wild Asian arowana — the world’s most expensive aquarium fish—takes her on a global tour through the bizarre realm of ornamental fish hobbyists to some of the most remote jungles on the planet.

A young man is murdered for his prized pet fish. An Asian tycoon buys a single specimen for $150,000. Meanwhile, a pet detective chases smugglers through the streets of New York. Delving into an outlandish world of obsession, paranoia, and criminality, The Dragon Behind the Glass tells the story of a fish like none other. Treasured as a status symbol believed to bring good luck, the Asian arowana, or “dragon fish,” is a dramatic example of a modern paradox: the mass-produced endangered species. While hundreds of thousands are bred in captivity, the wild fish has become a near-mythical creature. From the South Bronx to Borneo and beyond, journalist Emily Voigt follows the trail of the arowana to learn its fate in nature.

With a captivating blend of personal reporting, history, and science, Voigt traces our fascination with aquarium fish back to the era of exploration when intrepid naturalists stood on the cutting edge of modern science, discovering new species around the globe. In an age when freshwater fish now comprise one of the most rapidly vanishing groups of animals, she unearths a surprising truth behind the arowana’s rise to fame—one that calls into question how we protect the world’s rarest species.

An elegant examination of the human conquest of nature, The Dragon Behind the Glass revels in the sheer wonder of life’s diversity and lays bare our deepest desire—to hold on to what is wild.

When I read the above blurb – a pet fish that people commit murder over! –  I knew I had to read this book.  What with life and babies and all I didn’t read this right away, but when I read mention of an arowana getting plastic surgery in Rich People Problems it sparked my memory and I knew I had to read the Dragon Behind the Glass soon.  And I learned Kevin Kwan didn’t make it up – people really are that extreme about the Asian Arowana!  

Once I started reading I was hooked!  (Also I’m clearly hilarious)  What started as one story in New York let Voigt into places that very few people travel to try to find the story of the wild arowana.   She follows both the collectors who want the fish for the prosperity it can bring and the scientists trying to study a possible new strain.   I know I am not such an explorer so it was fascinating reading how far the quest to see something new and wild would take Voigt and the biologists that she worked with.  I know I wouldn’t try to get into Burma just to catch a glimpse of a fish in its native environment! Especially for such an odd looking fish.  Fish conventions, fish nicknames, fish theft – quite a world out there.

Voigt also left me thinking more deeply than I expected about how we treat endangered or threatened species and how those animals end up on the list in the first place.  While I fear without an endangered list we would drive even more species to extinction she has me wondering if instead we do even more harm than good.  When my daughter and I took our usual turn around the fish department at the local pet store last week I definitely was looking at all those tanks differently.  

Thank you Scribner and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

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4 Comments

  1. You ARE hilarious – hooked! I almost spit water on my screen.
    I find it so interesting that you thought you were getting one thing out of this book and you ended up looking at something completely different. I think it’s so important that our reading continues to challenge the way we see the world.

    I hate pet stores that sell actual animals! I used to love going in and taking a look at the adorable animals – now I can’t. It’s too hard. We’re getting close to banning stores from selling animals here.

  2. Murdered for a prize pet fish! I haven’t gotten to Rich People Problems yet, but having a zillion-dollar fish is exactly the kind of behavior I absolutely expect and look forward to with those characters. GOLD, and this book sounds like GOLD also.

  3. I’ve been intrigued by this book since it was released, but haven’t picked it up yet. It sounds as good as I hoped though! I love books that let me discover quirky subcultures and it sounds like the author did a great job treating this particularly subculture thoughtfully.

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