You would not know it living here in the States but Carol Birch is a big deal. She is the author of eleven well regarded novels. She has been long listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. So where has she been all our lives? Well, the short answer is England. The longer answer is something only American publishers can answer. Why didn't any of them bring her over for us? Random House has brought her to us now so I'll pretend to be a bigger person than I actually am and let my irritation go for now. The novel that Random House chose to initiate Birch's U.S. publication life is her newest, Jamrach's Menagerie.
Jamrach's Menagerie is the most colorful, grimy, brutal, salty coming of age story you are likely to read. It's the story of Jaffy Brown a nineteenth century boy who comes fully loaded with all that the best urchins have to offer: abject poverty, a single parent, limitless optimism, no education but natural smarts and a love of the sea. Jaffy is part Pip, part Popeye, part Ishmael, part Steve Irwin and thanks to Birch all freshness and charm. He's our narrator in Jamrach's so it's good thing you want to spend time with him, to root for him.
Jaffy's life pre-Jamrach is all work and the cesspool atmosphere of London slums. His one bright light is his Mother. She seems barely older than Jaffy at the start of the novel and they are devoted to one another. Jaffy enters Jamarach's life through the jaws a tiger. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Birch describes this magnificent tiger through Jaffy's inexperienced eyes. Jamrach is an agent of procurement for the wild and exotic that fill wealthy,private Victorian zoos. He is Jaffy's Magwich, a mysterious benefactor who puts him on a path out of the slums. Through the menagerie business Jaffy gets teamed up with another boy, Tim who becomes his friend and rival and Dan Rymer the sailor and adventurer who becomes father and mentor to both boys on the voyage to catch a 'dragon' that is the crux of the novel.
Jaffy's hard knock life thus far takes a turn for the worse after he goes to sea. At this point the novel shifts gears a little. Jaffy's childhood as difficult as it was still had an innocence to it, as he approaches adulthood on board the Lysander the tone of the book becomes harsher, more adult too. The change is subtly done. It goes from an almost lightheartedly dangerous Dickensian tale of life on the streets populated with colorful characters to a more Joseph Conrad nature verses man while man verses man tale.
Birch does a magnificent job bringing nineteenth century London and a globe crossing ocean voyage to life. The sights, the smells, the struggle to survive all leap off the page at you. What could have been an endless dirge of squalor, gin, abuse and near death experiences instead become a brilliant tour of lives lived by wit and sheer determination to last just another day. These places: London slums, the deck of the Lysander, a deserted island these are not locations that bring out the hopeful dreamer or the rags to riches tale. Birch makes these stops the natural progression of Jaffy's life after his singular good luck in finding himself in the tiger's mouth.
Jamrach's Menagerie owes some of it's events to the real life sinking of the whaling ship The Essex in 1820 (which inspired Melville's Moby Dick) and in exploits of Charles Jamrach. Jamrach was a German born merchant who dealt in wild animals and whose escaped tiger in London carried off a small boy. There are other plot elements in the story that I won't detail but will have a vaguely familiar ring to them. This is not a criticism. Birch's use of a true facts and a few known legends only enhances the feeling of historical accuracy in Jaffy's story. She retells these moments within the larger plot with a vivid immediacy that makes Jamarach's a page turner as well as a graduate level course on how to write historical fiction.
So how about the other ten Carol Birch novels? Any chance we will see them? After reading/devouring Jamrach's Menagerie I certainly hope so!