by Carol Birch
348 pages, Canongate
Review by Pat Black
A bright splash of colour on many a shelf, Jamrach’s Menagerie is a novel of Victorian Britain in the same vein as Essie Fox’s work. It concerns Jaffy Brown, a Bermondsey boy who goes to sea to seek his fortune and adventure after an encounter with a tiger in London’s backstreets.
The young Jaffy tries to pat the creature on the nose, as he would any other alley cat. The tiger, perhaps not used to pats on the nose, swipes the boy and makes off down the street with him. The Jamrach of the title owns a menagerie of rare creatures, and the escaped big cat belongs to him; he rescues Jaffy, and by way of recompense offers the lad employment.
From there, Jaffy meets Tim Linver, a precocious young man who takes a sort of Artful Dodger role, showing Jaffy the ropes as he looks after the creatures in Jamrach’s cages - and also playing a series of cruel tricks on him. After a while, the two friends determine to go to sea to capture what would be the jewel in Jamrach’s crown: a real dragon.
Although never named as such, this beast is almost certainly the Komodo Dragon of Indonesia, the giant monitor lizard which Sir David Attenborough describes as his least favourite creature. We meet the crew of the whaling ship, Lysander, and share its privations as they go about their bloody business on top of the waves until the dragon is encountered.
What I really liked about Birch’s most popular novel is that it stays away from magical realism, which might have been tempting for a lesser writer. Although wonderful, colourful things happen, none of it is implausible. Indeed, seemingly the most outlandish part, when boy meets tiger, is taken from a real-life incident, and Charles Jamrach was a real-life figure. But it’s not all pleasure boating. Horrible things happen, too.
It’s difficult to gauge the novel. Its opening quarter is a familiar slice of Victorian life, with grimy jobs and grim lives. There’s a touch of romance as Jaffy becomes sweet on Tim Linver’s sister. Then all of a sudden it’s a sea novel, with a colourful crew and commanding officers, bloodied by the business of slaughtering the great whales. Then it becomes… Well, to say more would spoil things somewhat, but this is no starry-eyed depiction of a young man coming of age.
I was lucky enough to hear Carol Birch speak about this book at a festival a couple of years ago, and she revealed that she wrote Jamrach’s Menagerie when her sons were preparing to leave home for university. There is certainly a sense of foreboding as the narrator and his friend leave England behind. But for all it describes some ugly business, this is a sparkling novel. Splashes of colour and oddity decorate our lives, but there’s some blood in the mixture, for sure.
What is it about tigers, incidentally? They lend themselves well to books, in the same way snow adds atmosphere to movies. To the typewriter, Tigger!