September 14, 2011 by markstani
On the face of it, maybe ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ doesn’t seem too promising: another addition to the age-old genre of high seas adventures of shipwrecks and cannibals and mythical beasts. What’s more, it’s apparently underpinned by the same small boy/big cat conceit that swept Yann Martel to the Booker Prize in 2002.
Nothing could be more misleading. Sure, Carol Birch’s 11th novel (pub. Canongate) – deservedly shortlisted for this year’s Prize – ticks all those boxes. But with her rich, colourful narrative and a cast of characters imbued with so generous a spirit that you can’t help but cheer them on, Birch has fashioned an epic fable to more than match most that have gone before.
‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ tells the story of Jaffy Brown, a young urchin plucked from the jaws of an escaped tiger by Mr Jamrach, a dealer and collector of some of the world’s most exotic creatures. Their resulting friendship culminates in Jaffy signing up for an epic voyage to discover and capture a mysterious dragon whose safe return will make them rich.
It’s a tumultuous tale of shipwrecks and sea shanties, dragon hunters and toucan traders, gaudy whores and drunken sailors, told from the first-person perspective of a by-now ageing Jaffy.
Where Birch really triumphs is in her glorious evocation of Victorian era London – a London smeared with the shit-stench of the Bermondsey tanneries and its Limehouse docks teeming with all forms of human and animal life:
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 sky blue. 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.
It is a world the young Jaffy only briefly comes to know, hoicked through its crowds by his new friend, the street-wise Tim, Jamrach’s trusted assistant, and his younger sister Ishbel, an impish siren for whom Jaffy’s as-yet unrequited love will torment him throughout his lusty voyage and the extraordinary ordeal which will change his life for ever.
It’s Ishbel, ultimately, who does more than most to lift this book above the slew of broadly similar seafaring tales, lending to Jaffy’s narrative a longing and an urgency which leads you to flit through the pages barely pausing for breath.
Above all, it’s a vivid, rollicking yarn, almost Twainian in its scent for further adventure. Those who believe they have read it all before ought to give it a try. Failing that, they should let us know which they believe to be its equal, because I for one will be first in the queue to read them.