Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

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Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: Jaffy Brown lives a poor existence in the east end of London. But one day he literally comes across a tiger - and his life is changed forever.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 348 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Canongate Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1847676566

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I've read and enjoyed Birch's Scapegallows (also historical fiction) as well as being asked to review it for my local Waterstone's . So I was keen to read this latest book. How could you fail to engage with a novel which starts with the evocative lines I was born twice. First in a wooden room ... and then again eight years later ...? I was hooked and Birch's writing brings to the reader the atmosphere of mid 19th century Bermondsey, London. The sights, the smells, the sounds are all here in lovely, creative text.

The novel is written in the first person by a young boy called Jaffy. He describes the poverty of his life at home which includes the delightful line We lived in the crow's nest of Mrs Reagan's house. He also describes his struggling mother and his absent father. But I got the sense that here was a bright and resilient boy.

And right from the outset there's reference after reference to water, the sea, the ocean (which has significant importance for Jaffy later in the novel). And then one day, Jaffy's life is turned upside down (you could almost say in a literal sense). He's going about his miserable, hungry daily existence running the odd errand for his mother, when he comes face to face with the most exotic creature he's ever seen. It's a tiger. It's somehow managed to escape from a local menagerie (which gives the book its title) but while the sensible and fearful grown-ups are fleeing for their lives in the streets, Jaffy is transfixed. He's in a dream and he doesn't want to waken up. Happily, he comes to no harm - and yes, it is plausible in Birch's narrative. And she is spot-on as she describes the tiger via young Jaffy. Utterly charming. I could feel his sense of wonder through the skill of Birch's writing.

Jaffy and the owner of the tiger, a Mr Jamrach strike up a funny sort of friendship/relationship and before he knows it Jaffy is working at the menagerie, looking after the animals. The less ferocious ones. He's a natural and young as he is, he feels some of the animals' distress as they are sometimes kept in less-than-ideal conditions. Mr Jamrach is not an unkind man but he's a businessman; space equals money. His animals are usually sold on. Jaffy's tiger, for example, was eventually transported to the Sultan of Constantinople. But the reader does come face-to-face with the ignorance and/or the sheer indifference of animal welfare at that time. Birch wastes no opportunity in laying out the greyness of that part of London with the exoticism of the animals which are passing through.

And then a terrific opportunity comes up for Jaffy. He grabs it with both hands. He can't wait. He's going to be the best sailor that there ever was when he sails the high seas. But while his childish ideas are rosy, the real thing turns out to be something different - beyond his wildest dreams and beyond his wildest nightmares. Birch excels in this part of the novel, I thought. It is truly a boy's adventure, par excellence. I felt caught up in it all, right to the bitter end. This is a big, bold, sea-going yarn narrated in original and delightful prose. Highly recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might enjoy The Tide of War by Seth Hunter.

Booklists.jpg Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch is in the Orange Prize 2011.
Buy Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch is in the Man Booker Prize 2011.

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Luci said:

Interestingly, this is on the longlist for the Orange Prize, announced today, alongside Room by Emma Donoghue, which is also told from the point of view of a child (both little boys as it happens). Definitely one I want to read.