Carol Birch: ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’
Normally I give any given Booker winner a wide berth for a year or two as some of them mellow with age and garner fine reputations, whilst others turn to vinegar after being subjected to the temporary blast of heat that is the Booker award. Reading something off the shortlist is, therefore, unprecedented behaviour. Jamrach’s Menagerie, however, instantly jumped out at me as ‘my sort of thing’, not least because of the rather baroque title. Unusually, the recommendation from the Daily Hate Mail on the back also helped sway me. Blue moons, porcine aerialistes, me listening to what the Mail has to say about anything, all equally likely, all signs and portents of the end times…
Seriously though, Jamrach’s Menagerie is the only thing on this years Booker shortlist that appealed, all the other nominations look pretty bloody depressing to me. I’m sure the story of the disapearance of a black German in 1940’s Berlin just rips along, but I for one will never know about it.
Jamrach’s starts off beautifully with a description of poor London life in the C19th, and swiftly moves through a young urchin’s youth, to life on a ship. The story is convincing and does indeed conjure vague thoughts of Dickens and the like, and Birch’s prose fairly snaps along before a prevailing breeze with one foot permanently in a sort of half-dream state where it feels as if the narrative may peel off into magical realism at any moment. The characters are all entertaining and likeable, and Birch has created a true ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure.
However, if in reading this I thought I would escape getting depressed, I was wrong. The book contains a volte, and Birch shows that she can conjure fever and madness, and that her prose is just as capable of being hard tack as it is of being a raspberry cream puff. Because of this, I was originally inclined to give this book a negative review, but then I realised that a) it is a beautifully set-up, artfully executed, and well thought through piece that genuinely managed to emotionally engage me with the characters, and b) that I had devoured in one sitting as I didn’t want to put it down, and at no point in it’s 350 pages had it dragged or slowed down.
Probably won’t win the Booker now because my taste’s tend to run contrary to popular opinion and I liked it, but if the Booker shortlist contains other such gems as this, maybe I should change my ways.