I have greatly enjoyed a couple of Carol Birch's novels in the last few years, which I came across because they were published by Virago, a favourite publishing house. So I was excited to see her on the Orange longlist, although she has now moved to Canongate, and I was extremely lucky to be able to acquire a copy courtesy of Jennifer there. And, before I go on to say anything about the writing, I want to say that this is the most aesthetically book-as-object appealing Orange longlisted title that has come through my hands this year. It shouldn't make a difference but it does. This title is a paperback, with lovely thick matt covers, with folded in flaps which make it much more substantial.
Onto the content! Set in Victorian London this rather gripping novel follows the life of Jaffy, who we meet as a child following an encounter in the streets with a tiger, from Mr Jamrach's menagerie. He starts to work for Mr Jamrach and takes on a commission to find for the menagerie a sea-dragon which is thought to live in the Indian Ocean. This turns the book into a seafaring adventure as things do not proceed straightforwardly.
What I liked best about this book is the eye for detail which really makes you feel like you are also witnessing the scenes of Victorian London and out on the open sea. I particularly liked the insight into 19th century working class life which was executed particularly successfully and reminded me of Birch's descriptions of 20th century working class life in Turn again home (which remains my favourite of her books).
"Blood and brine ran down the pavement into the gutters and was sucked into the mush under the barrows that got trodden all day long up and down, up and down, into your house, up the stairs, into your room. My toes slid through it in a familiar way, but it was better than shitty Thames mud any day.
Flypapers hung over every door and every barrow. Each one was black and rough with a million flies, but it made no difference. A million more danced happily about in the air and walked on the tripe which the butcher's assistant had sliced so thinly and carefully that morning and placed in the window".
Gruesome isn't it?
I'm not sure why this works for me here, when I found the level of detail off-putting in The memory of love, but it just does. Not my favourite story of the Oranges that I've read so far, perhaps because I tend to prefer female centred books, but oh so well written and an old fashionedly good story.
Diana Tempest by Mary Cholmondeley
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