2011 Shortlist – Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch

I thought I should get this review up before the short list is announced in roughly 24 hours time.
I need to admit that over the last 4 or so weeks I have done my best to not read a review of any of the books I am reading (or about to read) as the reviews may taint my own opinion, nor would I want to be accused of plagiarism. And as I’ve always maintained my reviews of the Booker novels may not meet anybody’s needs and subsequently looking at a few other reviews of books I have recently reviewed, my opinion is definitely not a shared one. For example, a number of people loved “Snowdrops”, a large number hated “The Testament of Jessie Lamb”, so whatever I write here please do not feel in any way obligated to agree with my views.
Onto this magnificent novel, Carol Birch’s 11th…but where to start? Take a dash of Dickens’ London, better mix in a smidgin of “Life of Pi”, add a splash of Sarah Hall’s “Electric Michelangelo”, throw in a spice of Melville’s “Moby Dick”, a whiff of A.S. Byatt and a pinch of Peter Carey’s “Oscar and Lucinda”…but don’t overdo it, as this is an original tale. At times a number of these books were brought to mind, but just as quickly as they sprung into my thoughts they were lost and I was sucked back into this fantastic tale of journey’s, friendships, survival and all so lyrically told.
The novel starts with Jaffy coming to life, as we’re told the tale of the day he was taken into the jaws of a tiger (in London mind you), and as this is written in the first person, we know he must survive. This event in itself sets off his life events, he meets Jamrach a rare animal trader, works in his yard with the exotic beasts, we learn of his friendship with Tim and Tim’s twin sister Ishbel, a meeting with seafarer Dan Rymer and the decision to go to sea on a whaler in search of a dragon. It is extremely hard to review this novel beyond this point without adding spoilers, which I do not want to do, nor would it do justice to the way Jaffy’s journey transpires.
The last 100 pages or so of the novel are gripping and I can assure you that you will not want to put the book down, although I must admit I did feel a little flat for 50 or so pages prior to that, and the first person writing in itself takes away some of the tension. But these are minor criticisms of what is surely a contender for the main gong. In my mind a novel certain to make the short list and one that I will certainly revisit someday.

At this stage I believe Pigeon English and this novel are short list contenders with both Far To Go and Jessie Lamb rough chances. Then again I still have seven more to read so could be very wrong indeed.

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