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2011 Catapult Notable List – #5

#5: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

I definitely first noticed Jamrach’s Menagerie because of its cover art (top), but thought the UK versions were equally solid, so I’m including their likenesses here as well. The nice part about this book is that the insides are actually better than the jacket art!

I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.

Set in Victorian England, this is the bizarre tale of Jaffy Brown, born in the darkest, dirtiest slum of Bermondsey, London. After being nearly eaten by a tiger on the street one day – a perfectly natural situation – he is taken in as hired help by the tiger’s owner, Mr. Charles Jamrach. Jamrach is a “Naturalist and Importer of Animals, Birds, and Shells” who brings exotic beasts from all corners of the world, houses them in a vast menagerie at his house in London, and sells them to wealthy Brits. After proving his value to Jamrach, Jaffy finds himself off on an ocean voyage with his best friend Tim Linver and Jamrach’s “finder,” Dan Rymer, in search of a reported dragon in the Java Sea. What they find sends them all on a much different kind of journey – one laced with insanity, unreliable narration, thirst, starvation, and the dark turns in the inner workings of the souls of men. It’s this latter part, of course, that I really loved. When your narrator is going insane from hunger and thirst, floating in a life raft hundreds of miles from everywhere… that’s when I tune in. What’s the fun in having a narrator who you can completely trust? You gotta embrace the crazy.

At turns this is a playful, whimsical story – light and filled with the magical awe experienced through the innocence of childhood – but Birch tosses in just enough Heart of Darkness for that third act, transforming it into a truly brilliant, wholly original book that I loved every word of. (Also shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, so it’s not just me.)

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This entry was posted on December 25, 2011 by in Carol Birch, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, Jamrach's Menagerie, review.
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