Review: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Shallow it may be, but I bought this book months ago solely on the merits of its cover. It looked impressive enough on the shelf to languish there without actually getting around to reading it, but with the furore surrounding its inclusion on the ‘readable’ Man Booker prize list (more on that later), it has bounded its way up the pile.

Set in the 19th century, the novel follows the life of Jaffy Brown – a street urchin growing up in Bermondsey – after a miraculous encounter with an escaped tiger belonging to Jamrach. Part circus master, part curio-and-pet-shop owner, Jamrach invites Jaffy to work in his menagerie, and in doing so sets the course of Jaffy’s life, from London to adventure on the high seas.

Birch’s brilliantly conjures a world in which men still quest after mysteries and monsters are still possible. In many respects, this is a mesmerising adventure story. Elsewhere I’ve heard it compared to Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies and even Dickens. I don’t read enough nautical fiction to know whether that part of the novel does it justice, but it rang true for me without becoming incomprehensible (as I’m afraid a lot of nautical terminology does after a while…).

But without giving too much away, we are denied the satisfaction of your average adventure yarn as the novel instead seems to hinge on that dividing line between accident and fate, impossibility and unknowability, and how our lives take the courses that they do.

One thing that did fascinate me was the title. I was expecting more from the enigmatic Jamrach, but he is a largely absent figure despite giving his name to the novel. The only way I could justify it to myself was in drawing a parallel between the random characters and experiences we encounter in our lives that define us, and the variety of animals and paraphernalia that comprised his shop. But I wonder whether that isn’t a little heavy handed, and if so, it rather throws away what could have been a fascinating and more developed character. I don’t know – I’d be interested to know if anyone had any other insights.

There was something about this novel that left me a little hungry: Tim, Skip and Jamrach all seemed as though they had more to offer. But, as with Dickens’ London teeming with life, it is the mark of a well-constructed fictional world, that we are sad to see it go.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Adventure, loss and (self-)discovery on the high seas.

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