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.

~ by Snake Oil on October 11, 2011.

4 Responses to “Carol Birch: ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’”

  1. I’ll have to put this on my list. It sounds quite intriguing.

    As for it’s presence on the Booker, well… I used to swear by the list, but over the past five or more years, I found them all becoming a bit too similar.

    “Oooh wah, Post-Colonial Malais… heavy sigh”

    If you know what I mean. Still, if it is as artfully done as you say, it will be well worth a gander.

  2. You are right about the Booker. Whilst not bludgeoning the reader with it like Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ does, for instance, there is a definite post-col undertow here. Not enough for it to be the main focus of the book, but probably enough for an earnest undergrad to write a identikit analysis on it. The post-col project is a valuable one to be sure, but it is a bit one-dimensional, and I for for one will be glad when we collectively get over it.*

    In retrospect, ‘Jamrach’s’ is like a magician who only has one trick, but has practised it until it is perfect. It’s a good trick, but it is after all just a trick, and this prevents the book from making the leap from entertainment to literature, IMO. A very difficult book to talk about without dropping spoilers.

    * Say’s the English, middle-class, white male.

  3. mmm… I must admit, I am a bit tired of the White Guilt trip. While I adore the rise in authors from other cultures writing about their experiences, I’m a bit bored of the White English/American author either telling me how crap I am (I know it… mia culpa… move on) or worse yet, telling me stories from the other cultures as if they had a clue as to what it was like to be a mixed race woman in 19th Century Central Africa.

    Mind you, I did enjoy the English Passangers a good deal… wso…

  4. *last word = so…..

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