Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

An extraordinary cover!

As soon as I saw it I knew that it just had to hold adventure, colour, drama … many great wonders … didn’t it?

Yes, it did!

‘I was born twice. First in wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.’

The words were just as compelling. And yet I started and stopped, started again and stopped more than once, before I finally read the book right through.

Because this is a book that requires the right moment, the right mindset. Because the words are as vivid, as colourful as that cover, describing every sight, every sound, every smell … every single sensation.

It’s powerful, but sometimes its too much.

In 1857, on the streets of London, young Jaffy Brown comes face to face with an escaped tiger. It is an encounter that will change his life.

The animal’s owner, Mr Jamrach, traveller, menagerie-owner and dealer in the extraordinary creatures, is impressed by Jaffy’s handling of the situation, and offers him a job.

For a while Jaffy works at the menagerie, but that is just the beginning. He is offered the chance to go to sea, to join the expedition searching for the rarest creature of them all.

At first it is an adventure, but the voyage becomes a nightmarish struggle for survival.

I lived through the adventure and the nightmare. It was exciting, it was painful, and at times I had to look away. It was too dark, too painful.

I saw how little man understands nature and the world around him, though he thinks he does. How small man is in the scheme of things, though he thinks that he is big. How much damage he can do.

I saw human nature at its best and at its worst. I saw friendship, camaraderie, rivalry, superstition, fear, the survival instinct …

It was incredible, it was horrible at times, and yet I believed every word.

And I can understand why Jamrach’s Menagerie has beguiled the judges of the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

It is a coming of age story, an adventure story, a story of Victorian England, like nothing else I have ever read.

5 responses

  1. I half-heartedly started this last night, but after reading your thoughts I am eager to plunge right in! I love your observation that the writing can be ‘too much’. I think that’s what I was feeling when I started it. It’s an all or nothing type of book isn’t it?

  2. I read this a few months ago and loved it, so I was pleased to see it on the Booker longlist. I was surprised to find I enjoyed it so much as I don’t usually like books with long sections set at sea!

  3. “It was incredible, it was horrible at times, and yet I believed every word.”

    It sounds as though we’ve had very similar reactions to this one (my response is here): I am so keen — and so afraid — to read other works of hers now.

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