Myself and any books short-listed for the Booker prize usually don't get on so I was a bit hesitant to read Jamrach's Menagerie at first. But it has so many elements I was interested in that I had to eventually give it a go; Victorian London - check, wild animals - check, adventure - check, focusing on squalor rather than riches - check. Plus, I am from the East End of London myself and all of these features combined made me excited to start this book.
It's the tale of Jaffy Brown, a young boy who one day encounters a tiger walking down the street. Despite being carried in the jaws of the the tiger, he is unharmed and his bravery catches the eye of Jamrach, wild animal dealer. Soon Jaffy's life is transformed as he is offered steady work and opportunities start to come his way. He accepts a position on a whaling ship hunting down rumours of a dragon but has no idea of what lies in store for him...
Above all else, Jamrach's Menagerie is a good, old-fashioned, rip-roaring adventure story and I loved it. From the very first lines I was transported back to Victorian London in all the filth and stench of the docks areas and working class population. The sights, smells and tastes were so evocative that sometimes I had to look up from the book and physically remind myself of what the here and now actually is. That rich writing continued all throughout the book, even when Jaffy is at sea. The beautiful sunsets, tropical islands and acres of space are described so cleverly by Birch that I almost feel as though I know what it would be like to be a sailor.
At times, this descriptive writing takes you to places you would rather not go to. I went into this book without knowing what the shocking element of it was (and if you don't know, I'm not going to spoil it), so was completely captivated when events at sea started to unfold. I didn't realise how invested I was in Jaffy as a character until things started to go wrong for him and it's not an exaggeration to say that I was on the edge of my seat, turning the pages of the book as fast as I could. I lost sleep in order to find out what would happen next, and I'm someone who needs sleep to function.
I've seen reviews of this book stating that it didn't 'deserve' to be on the Booker short-list, that it was all about controversy and that's what caught the eye of the judges. I can't comment on the Booker selection, but what this book is is a well-written, well-paced, fascinating adventure story with some sensational elements. It's a lot fun to read, in the same way Treasure Island or King Solomon's Mines are and it's the perfect book to completely lose yourself in.
I borrowed this book from the library, but will be purchasing a copy so I can reread it in the future.
Verdict: Fun adventure story that will keep you gripped. Highly recommended.
First Published: 2011
Score: 5 out of 5