Monday, 28 March 2011

Orange 2011: Jamrach's menagerie (Carol Birch)

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.


  1. I think this one is one of the most unique ones on the longlist, and I'm eagerly awaiting my copy arriving from the UK. I haven't read any of Birch's previous novels, but I'm quite intrigued by this one. I'm planning to sandwich my reading of it between two other female-centered books.

  2. I am intrigued by this book. It is certainly not something I would choose to read.

  3. I like the sound of this one. The writing doesn't affect me. The Victorian London appeals to me the most.

  4. I've asked for this at the library Verity so it was great to hear you felt so positive about it. It isn't my "usual" type of book, but felt it was worth a go.

  5. Glad you enjoyed it. I incline towards this sort of novel anyway & think it's great it's made it onto the long list. Thoroughly atmospheric & a well told story. I really liked it.

  6. I adore French flaps, just like you.

    Interesting to read more about this book as it's one of the Orange longlist that I know little about so far. I find it curious though that it isn't female-centic, not that the Oranges have to be, but they usually seem to go hand in hand...

  7. Nomad reader - it was certainly unique in comparison to the other titles.

    Jo - I'm not sure I would have given it a go, even though it was by an author I'd previously read, but sometimes it is worth taking a risk.

    Vivienne - the Victorian London bits were excellent.

    Ali - Atmospheric is a good word for this book!

    Claire - I forgot that they were called french flaps. I suppose it is a bit like the VMC list, in that some of the VMCs are not female centric, which always feels a bit odd!

  8. I purchased the same edition: it is lovely indeed!

    And what a tale: this is one of my favourites so far, and even though there were parts of the story that I absolutely hated (you can guess what they were!), I felt that the author's integrity shone through.

    I still have two books to read but I think this will be my Orange find of the year, meaning the author I'd not heard of, whose works are most intriguing to me now.


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