"I was born twice. First in a 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."
So (truly) begins Jamrach's Menagerie – and the rest of the story more than lives up to the mysterious promise of that opening. On the short list last year for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize, this is Carol Birch's eleventh novel, and though she has won many prizes across the pond, this could be considered her breakthrough work.
The protagonist and narrator, Jaffy Brown, is a tough, lovable Cockney kid straight out of Dickens. As the opening paragraph alludes to, one day Jaffy runs into an escaped tiger, which seizes his head in its mouth. Jaffy becomes a minor celebrity for surviving this unscathed, and is recruited by Charles Jamrach (a real historical figure!) to help run his exotic animal trade. Jaffy is soon dispatched to the East Indies with a whaler crew whose mission is to find and capture a legendary dragon. Without giving any more away, let me say that the book takes an unexpected turn for the darker in the second half, bringing Jaffy face-to-face with the danger and horror of life in a way merely hinted at by the tiger episode of the first chapter.
This book is many things: a coming-of-age story, a nostalgic romance, a rollicking sea adventure, and an intense, fearless look into the heart of darkness. Fans of Joseph Conrad, indeed, will find much to admire here. It's hard not to be reminded of many of the great touchstones of seafaring literature: Treasure Island, Moby-Dick, Kidnapped and Robinson Crusoe, to name a few.
If you're a fan of those old-style swashbuckling voyages that combine a child's sense of wonder with genuine literary merit and serious stakes, Jamrach's Menagerie is a welcome throwback and a worthy new arrival in that tradition.
Nadia Jones is an education blogger for an online education website and a freelance writer on all things academia. Nadia uses the written word to share her knowledge on accredited online college education and the latest news in the educational world. Though Nadia's mind is always preoccupied with topics of education, she spends her downtime volunteering with middle school students and pitching for her adult softball team. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you Nadia for your guest post.
This book may have been received free of charge from a publisher or a publicist. That will NEVER have a bearing on my recommendations.