Although none of the Booker shortlist knocked me out this year I have to admit that, despite the immensely attractive cover, this isn't a book that would automatically draw me in; the seafaring theme being the primary drawback. I have been heartened to hear that I'm not the only reader with a problem with books set on boats. Adventure I love, travel I adore, but I never exactly understood (without much experience I must admit) how a novel so restricted in its setting could be interesting; a feeling exacerbated by the complete absence of female characters I imagined there might also be as a result.
It happily turns out that my preconceptions were largely unfounded, a discovery I hope I will continue to make by hauling my lazy self to as many literary events in the region as possible. In the case of Jamrach's Menagerie, the whole 'historical fiction' label helped to push me in the right direction as anything set in London in the 19th century immediately grabs my attention.
Jaffy Brown is a young working class lad living in and around the docklands of the great city with his dear old 'ma', who he loves dearly. One day something utterly extraordinary happens to this young boy, whose life has been fairly inconsequential up until then; a great Bengal tiger has found himself on a main road in the center of London and is sauntering down it without a care in the world. Does Jaffy scream? Cower? Run away? No. He walks straight up the beast and pets it on the nose as he might do a soft little pussy cat. In response he is lifted up within the tiger's mouth, passes out, and is carried down the street until its owner, the great Charles Jamrach (who actually existed in real life it turns out - but more of that later!) comes to the rescue and whisks Jaffy away back into his mother's arms.
© 2011 Fauna & Flora International
Carol Birch paints a vivid picture of Victorian London; a stinky, seething hub of humanity; workers, whores and drunkards staggering down the filthy streets whilst hordes of weather-beaten sailors wash in and out of the harbour every day, bringing their stories with them. These stories inevitably reach the ears of young Jaffy and, much to his mother's dismay, as soon as the opportunity comes to set sail for distant lands, hot on the tail of Tim and the marvellous old sailor Dan Rymer, he takes it. I have to say that, unlike Jaffy, I was reluctant to leave the safety of the shore.
The boys are sent as part of the crew on a whaling boat to catch a 'dragon' from some distant island somewhere for a rich client of Jamrach's; an exciting prospect you might think. However, I have to say that the first few chapters at sea, perhaps not helped by my preconceptions, did not completely enthrall me, despite the wonderfully gritty and grim descriptions of sea sickness the 'green' boys suffer during the first few weeks. However, happily and as hoped, as soon as the real mission for the 'dragon' is embarked upon the story really picked up and held my attention right up to the terribly traumatic chapters to follow that, in sharp contrast, had me completely gripped until the very end. (All I can suggest is that you read it to fully understand.)
I'm not necessarily in the camp of people who think that a book based on a true story necessarily makes it a better one, however, after reading I was delighted to recall Birch's comments on background research/inspiration for the novel; including the tragic story of the Whaleship Essex, an event I had never heard about before.
Charles Jamarach was also a real-life London character in the early 19th century and did actually rescue a young boy from the clutches of one of his tigers, a scene that would be quite a sight today, never mind 200 years ago. I am glad I read this novel and feel that it was a rightful contender for the Booker Prize this year. It is imaginative, illuminating, harrowing and has broaden my horizons considerably.
Lesson # 1: Don't just read the blurb on the back and dismiss books offhand Lucy, you're far better than that.