Booker Books: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

This year, for reasons not entirely clear even to myself, I’ve decided to read and review (well, react to) the six books shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize (in order of what we have the most stock of). I read a varied lot of books, from Maggie O’Farrell to J. R. Ward to China Miéville to Louise Penny. I’m coming into the shortlisted books entirely blind – as in, I’ve not read any of these authors before, and I don’t know anything about the books either (not even what it says on the back!). I like to think that this means I have a completely fresh take on all of them. 🙂

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Publisher’s book description:

Young Jaffy Brown never expects to escape the slums of Victorian London. Then, aged eight, a chance encounter with Mr Jamrach changes Jaffy’s stars. And before he knows it, he finds himself at the docks waving goodbye to his beloved Ishbel and boarding a ship bound for the Indian Ocean. With his friend Tim at his side, Jaffy’s journey will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits.

Here is the Guardian’s review.

My take:

Next to Julian Barnes, Carol Birch is the only author on this year’s shortlist who has written more than 2 novels – and it shows. Both she and Barnes have developed a style that you can sink into, like a comfortable chair; Barnes’s chair is the one molded to your body, Birch’s chair the one that can twirl around all the way, hiding you completely while you get gleefully dizzy. The other writers are still too gimmicky (which isn’t to say they’ve not written good books, only they have to find their writing stride, still).

Jamrach’s Menagerie starts with our hero, Jaffy, moving from the worst part of Victorian London to the slightly less bad Ratcliffe Highway, where he gets swallowed by a tiger. The tiger has escaped from Mr. Jamrach‘s Menagerie, where Jaffy soon finds a place to work among the exotic animals, along with Tim, a boy a few years older. Until, that is, both he and Tim go off on a whale boat to find a dragon for one of Mr. Jamrach’s wealthiest clients.

To me, Birch has written a more adult version of my childhood favorite De scheepsjongens van Bontekoe by Johan Fabricius (the English edition, The Cabin Boys of Bontekoe, is no longer in print). That, too, is a story of the high seas, full of sights seen through a boy’s eyes large with the new and undiscovered, and of the ultimate tragedy a sailor can experience. Birch, though, adds a terrible spin; one you hope, as a reader, never to have to face.

I found Birch’s descriptive writing absorbing, particularly the whaling: the horror of the dying animal, the days-long, filthy work of gutting and cleaning the carcass. I felt smack in the middle of everything, from that whaling to the drunken revelry after reaching port, to the humid, tense tracking of the beast. The only jarring note for me was the blurring of timelines now and again, where the boy on the boat morphed into the older man looking back, without warning.

This is Carol Birch’s 11th novel, and the first to be short-listed for the Booker (although Turn Again Home was long-listed). Of the five I’ve read now, I’ve found this to be the most complete book, where the balance of style, plot, engagement, and message is best.

Previous Booker Books: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, and Snowdrops by A. D. Miller.

Next up: Well, it should be Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, but I haven’t the time before the awards ceremony tomorrow evening! I have read the first few chapters, though, and so far I’ve found it hard going. The setting for the book is World War II, and to be honest, I don’t think I can stand to read another book about that era, even if it is about Afro-German jazz trumpeters, which is about the only angle this war hasn’t been covered by in literature. With my luck, it’ll probably win. 🙂 Here’s the Guardian‘s review of it, to tide you over!

By Sophie.