Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

The shelves groan with books. Boxes of discarded volumes are stacked up in the back rooms of charity shops. What’s a poor novelist to do? In the face of this whirlpool of words, how can an author find a new story for their readers? That is the problem for Jamrach’s Menagerie, a 2011 novel by Carol Birch.

Jamrach’s Menagerie tells the tale of two boys who work for a Victorian trader in rare animals. The descriptions of nineteenth-century London are very real. The metropolis is portrayed as a damp warren of slums where people live in desperate poverty. Shunting sideways, the narrative then moves to the tropics for a wild animal hunt, rather reminiscent of the Willard Price books I lapped up as a child.

Alas the mission in search of a strange animal ends badly for all concerned, and we move into a nightmarish ocean voyage that is told with visceral detail. Carol Birch has a grisly imagination that puts Stephen King to shame. At times I found this book a gripping read, and the crumbling psyche of the characters is particularly well-drawn:

Skip was going barmy too, snivelling sulkily like a big stupid kid, occasionally shouting about a thing that walked alongside us on the water, a hoofed thing like a goat and a man and a fish all at once. He said it grinned and was stalking us. Still, we were all mad in our different ways, sitting there helpless, with the sea still twinkling like eternity everywhere, with never a sail or an island or a rock or a bird even. (Chapter 13)

The problem is that Jamrach’s Menagerie is very reminiscent of other books. With its tigers and shipwrecks, it’s easy to draw comparisons with Life of Pi. It also recalls the whale massacres of Melville’s Moby Dick and the horror of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The London scenes are wonderfully detailed (Birch has an particular gift for describing rooms and interiors) but it’s almost impossible to set a novel in Victorian London without the ghost of literature past lurking in the background.

Nevertheless, Birch’s publishers have taken a punt on her, and deservedly so. Jamrach’s Menagerie is rich with detail and thoroughly convincing. It just fails to escape the gravitational pull of its illustrious forbears. Perhaps that’s true of every book these days. In any case, I really enjoyed this novel, even having read all the others that I have mentioned above.

Support your local bookshop! I’m an Amazon user like everyone else, but I always buy a book when I come across it in my local bookshop. I picked this novel off the shelf in Caxton Books in Frinton-on-Sea, Essex: http://caxton-books.co.uk/.

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