Saturday, October 8, 2011

Boy + Tiger + Sea voyage = Booker nomination?

Jamrach's Menagerie
by Carol Birch

Set in the unforgiving world of 19th century England, Jamrach’s Menagerie is the story of Jaffy Brown, who claims to have been reborn at the age of eight. On that day, he’s out and about when everyone around him starts running and pressing themselves up against walls. Looking up, he sees a large tiger padding right towards him. Jaffy walks up and pats its fur—at which point the tiger takes the boy in its mouth and starts carrying him off, little bare toes dragging over the cobbles. Jaffy doesn’t struggle or fuss.

Soon enough, the boy is saved by the eponymous Jamrach, the dealer in wild and exotic animals from whom the tiger had escaped. Jamrach decides that Jaffy is “good with animals,” and fearless to boot. The eight year old is offered a job, and he spends his formative years working with the animals alongside a frenemy, one year older. As teenagers, the two boys decide to ship off to sea aboard a whaling ship with a secondary mission. They are to capture an unknown beast—a dragon—for one of Jamrach’s wealthy clients. We haven’t entered the realm of fantasy; this reader knows that what they are after is a Komodo dragon, even if the characters themselves don’t.

While this is Ms. Birch’s ninth novel, it’s her first novel-length work published in the U.S. It has also been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize this year, and I can certainly see why. Rarely have I seen more evocative prose. She has vividly captured the sights and sounds and ghastly smells of this harsh era. She has also captured the wonder of this more innocent age. Beauty and wonder are a joy to read when so evocatively rendered, but when the tale devolves into terror, madness, and a struggle to survive—as it does—the power of her prose is painful. It’s amazing how affecting mere words can be!

Jaffy Brown is a character who leads an extraordinary life, and Carol Birch takes her readers on an adventure well worth traveling!

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