Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch

Generally speaking any book that evokes the Victorian period is one that is going to win me over. Equally any book that is set one a boat is highly likely to be a complete failure with me. This therefore was an interesting dichotomy which faced me before I started reading ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ because I knew this book was a mixture of both my very favourite of settings in time and also one of my least favourites places to base a book. So before I had even turned a page of this book I knew that this was going to either be a book which I absolutely love or absolutely loathe.

‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ opens in 1857 as we meet Jaffy Brown aged eight years old as he gets born for the second time. Sounds odd, but when you have come close to death it is said you often feel reborn. You see Jaffy Brown is an inquisitive little fella, and on one of his wanderings through London’s streets he comes across ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ and a tiger, a creature he has never seen before and wants to befriend, only tiger’s don’t always want to be friends as he soon learns when it tries to eat him. This is the moment that Jaffy meets Jamrach himself (despite the title Jamrach is not really in the book much he is more a catalyst) and his life changes forever. He becomes one of the workers at the menagerie, an equally thrilling, surreal and slightly dark world filled with unknown creatures from all over the seven seas. It’s here he makes friends, and equal foes on occasion, with Tim Linver a friendship that is going to be tested and tried through their life time, especially when they both set sail on the hunt for a dragon for one of Jamrach’s wealthiest clients.

From here, as we set sail, I was expecting to either loath the book, or Carol Birch might do what several authors have failed to do before and have me captivated as we went to sea. I was hoping after such a stunning start to the book in the East End that Carol Birch would take me on an epic adventure, and guess what, she did. As Jaffy and Tim, alongside their new sea fairing friends including the wonderful but rather mad Skip whose story might just break your heart, start their three year voyage on The Lysander initially hunting for whales I was both thrilled at the chase and horrified at the event when it took place. The same applied as they then arrived in the Dutch East Indies and hunted the islands for dragons. I had thought that the book would lose its drive after this, but Birch has much more hidden up her sleeves, or should that be in the pages that follow, as the book continues.

There were two things that I would never initially have expected from a book like this. The first of which was to feel that I had actually lived the adventure and been with the crew on every step of the way. Can you say you felt camaraderie with a bunch of fictional sailors? If so then I did. The second was that I would find the book such an emotional one. Jaffy and Tim’s friendship which has turbulent times to begin with becomes one of equal comfort and malice a decade on as the wave’s crash around them. There is competition, one-upmanship and secrets. There is also one of the most heartbreaking twists when tragedy strikes, of course I am not sharing what the tragedies or twists are but never in a million years did I expect to be sat reading a book about a boat and being on the edge of tears for any reason other than boredom. Oh how wrong I was.

This is by no means ‘the’ perfect book, it could do with the tiniest of thinning out on the sea in between hunting for whales and the dragon, but it’s a gripping novel that is written utterly brilliantly. Birch never shows off how much research she has done, Jamrach was a real person and the event on The Lysander is based on a true life whale hunting boat in the early to mid 1800’s, but sometimes she does slightly over egg the Victorian descriptive pudding. For someone like me who loves that period too much is never enough, yet I did wonder if I wasn’t would I love how descriptive it was or feel the tiniest bit claustrophobic with the description? There were so many parts of the book I wanted to quote I have decided to quote none of them as this review would never end. It’s like a modern twist on the adventure stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and that to me is a great thing. I would heartily recommend everyone giving it ago.

Carol Birch’s ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ is a book that beguiles you with its cover (if awards for covers were being dished out on books published in 2011 then this one would have to win hands down in my personal opinion) and then leads you through the vivid city streets of Victorian London before taking you on an emotional adventure on the high seas. It’s an epic book, filled with surprises, twists and turns, and with characters you will route for. Yet it’s one which manages to achieve its status without having to be over 350 pages. I think this is an incredible achievement and one which should be widely read. 9/10

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher.

I really enjoyed this book so was surprised that it didn’t make the Orange Prize Shortlist (I read it quite a while ago when I was reading the whole longlist). I was thrilled to learn that this was Carol Birch’s eleventh novel (after I went and did some research, I like to go into a book a little blindly and see what avenues I want to discover afterwards) so there are more for me to go and discover which I shall now be doing. Anyone got any recommendations of her earlier novels? Anyone else read ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ and what did you make of it?

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26 Comments

Filed under Books of 2011, Canongate Publishing, Carol Birch, Orange Prize, Review

26 responses to “Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch

  1. Louise

    This was my joint favourite from the longlist, and i was baffled as to why it didn’t make the shortlist. I was a little worried about the sea and boats but the blurb did win me over, i’m so glad it did! Love your review for this!

    I have a copy of Scapegallows, it’s based on a true story of a woman, who escaped the gallows in the 18th century, it does like a bit boat and watery though 😉

    • I have to say I am quite baffled, though having said that now I know who the winner was I think maybe the judging panel and myself wouldnt have been alligned on things. I wouldnt have short listed the winner let alone let it win. Oops. Moving on…

      I really liked this book. It had adventure and it also had lots of emotion, in fact I was saying only the other day how impressed I was that it did both of these and made them harmonise.

  2. It sounds brilliant, Simon, but I’m afraid I’m not a fan of that cover. It looks bloody scary to me; I certainly would not pick it up if I saw it on display. Interesting that Birch has written so many novels; I’ve not come across her before. Must investigate further… thank goodness for Google! 🙂

    • Hahaha it really made me laugh that you found the cover scary, I think its utterly stunning. Maybe the paperback won’t be quite so bold lol.

      Weirdly do you know what? I havent looked up a single one of her books since, which is very strange. I might just go off and do that now as I would certainly like to read more of her.

  3. I enjoyed this book too. Like you, I love anything Victorian but tend not to like seafaring books so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but it turned out to be one of my favourites of the Orange longlisted books I’ve read so far. I’m also looking forward to reading more of Carol Birch’s novels at some point.

    • Ha how interesting that you and I love the victorian but dont love the seafaring and then loved this. See it shows just what a genius Carol Birch must be. I definitely need to look up what else she has written, its very odd that I havent.

  4. This sounds really interesting, I’ll put it on the list.
    I was trying to think of other books that have done seafaring well – English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is the one that stands out in my memory.

    • You see Graham I was cross with myself for English Passengers because everyone I know and trust book wise loves it. Its got the most narratives in any book (or something like that) and yet it didnt grab me enough. I need to try it again I think.

      This is one I definitely recommend.

  5. lubylou12

    It sounds really interesting and original Simon. I had no idea that she had 11 books out already! Think I’ll add this one to my tbr list and have a look into her other books.

    • Its interesting Lou the more I think about this book, the more I am surprised that it didnt make the short list as its a proper story and that is in part what book prizes should be pushing, the art of storytelling, well I think so anyway.

  6. This was one of my favourites of this year’s Orange reading too. I hadn’t read it before the shortlist had been announced, otherwise I would have been quite shocked I think. Carol Birch certainly took me a lot of places that I did NOT want to go in this novel, and I think that’s something to be celebrated. (And I’m also shocked that I hadn’t taken note of her before as she’s obviously quite an accomplished author with so many books to her credit.)

    • One of my favourites too. I am still a little puzzled as to why it didnt make the list but hey ho. I am hoping this book might get a booker nod, I am not sure it will but it would be lovely if it did. Definitely must read more of her work, in fact I am going to order one from the library now.

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  11. Kim

    This was my first read from the Booker longlist for this year and I’m exceptionally impressed. It’s a beautiful book from start to finish. I know it’s trivial, but I can’t resist adding – even the cover. When I first saw it, I thought, I don’t know if that’s a book that wants me to read it, or a book that wants to eat me. When I got to the end, I remembered my initial thoughts and was awestruck. It’s one of those occasions where the complete book -particularly the words of course, but also the entire design – is a complete experience, and close to flawless. Bravo.

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  18. I loved this too, a great opening paragraph. I must admit, until I googled her I didn’t realise she’d written so many novels.

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