JAMRACH’S MENAGERIE by Carol Birch, Book Review: Vivid

In Jamrach’s Menagerie Carol Birch conjures up a world of kaleidoscopic sights, sounds and smells more vivid and captivating than reality.

Jamrach's Menagerie - Carol Birch - ReviewJamrach’s Menagerie Synopsis

1857. Jaffy Brown is running along a street in London’s East End when he comes face to face with an escaped circus animal. He is plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach-explorer, entrepreneur and collector of the world’s strangest creatures and the two strike up a friendship.

Before he knows it, Jaffy finds himself on board a ship bound for the Dutch East Indies, on an unusual commission for Mr Jamrach. His journey-if he survives it-will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits.

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When the 2011 Man Booker Prize long-list was announced I was in a bit of a quandary as to which titles I would read. One of the few titles that appealed to me in the long-list this year was Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie.

Despite having published 10 titles, I had not come across Birch before. It was actually the ebook cover-art of this novel that first caught my attention, along with the parallel’s made with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (which I loved).

Birch writes extraordinarily imaginative and lyrical prose. I was hooked from the intriguing opening:

I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.

In Jamrach’s Menagerie Carol Birch conjures up a world of kaleidoscopic sights, sounds and smells more vivid and captivating than reality.

Already I’d seen things I’d never seen before. The new labyrinth of narrow lanes teemed with the faces and voices of the whole world. A brown bear danced decorously on the corner by an alehouse called Sooty Jack’s. Men walked about with parrots on their shoulders, magnificent birds, pure scarlet, egg-yolk yellow, bright blue sky. Their eyes were knowing and half amused, their feet scaly. The air on the corner of Martha street hung sultry with the perfume of Arabian sherbet, and women in silks as bright as the parrots leaned out from doorways, arms akimbo, powerfully breasted like the figureheads of the ships lying along the quays.

The narrator and protagonist, Jaffy Brown, is written with such heart and sensitivity, one cannot help but barrack for the young guy.

At which the girl peeped round her mother’s side, clutching onto a scrap of polka-dot scarf wrapped round her neck and smiling. It was the first smile of my life. Of course, that is a ridiculous thing to say; I had been smiled at often, the big man had smiled at me not a minute since. And yet to say: it was the first smile, because it was the first that ever went straight into me like a needle to thin to be seen.

I could easily cite passages all day from this novel, but I think you get the picture… but don’t for a minute think this story is all loveliness and rainbows. Oh no, Birch is not afraid to provide just as vivid descriptions for dark and traumatic story elements. I must admit I was caught off-guard and did find the imagery in some sections hard to consume. As a point of reference, if watching video footage of whaling makes you feel ill, then you must approach this novel with extreme caution.

Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie is a novel of extremes – of tenderness and terror, of beauty and horror. This is a wonderfully original but at times confronting literary work.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5  —  Overall 4.25

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Genre: Action-Adventure, Drama, Romance, Literature, Historical

Related Reads:  The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander  |  Fortune by Lenny Bartulin  |  Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth  |  Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

About the Author, Carol Birch

Carol Birch is the author of ten previous novels, including Scapegallows (2008) and Turn Again Home (2003) which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Jamrach’s Menagerie was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011 and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011.

Other reviews of Jamrach’s Menagerie: The Guardian ; The Complete Booker ; Kevin from Canada ; BookBath