Carol Birch’s 10th novel, short-listed for this year’s Man Booker prize, begins with all the brio of a Dickensian romp but slowly turns into a troubling, melancholic odyssey.
Eight-year-old Jaffy Brown is rescued from his slum-dwelling childhood in Victorian London by a chance encounter with Mr Jamrach, a collector of exotic animals. After spending the best part of a decade working in Jamrach’s menagerie, Jaffy and his pal Tim set sail in pursuit of a fabled dragon. This hunting expedition, on an old whaler to distant oceans, is evoked with enchantment and awe by Birch and forms the meat of this bittersweet novel.
Serious weather, shipwreck and stark choices imbue the voyage with a mutinous adrenalin, and colourful characters animate the ship’s claustrophobic world while Birch builds their growing superstitions into a sequence of calamities. Deceptively upbeat, this yarn entertains while regaling the reader with doom-laden adventuring.
Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch, Canongate, RRP£7.99, 348 pages