Yet another book shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize that has completely blown me away - and, again, it was a book I would never have picked up in a million years if I was not working my way through this prize list determined to read them all!
Jamrach's Menagerie had three things against it when it came to drawing me in as a reader, firstly, it's cover. Without getting too technical, I just don't like it! I need a cover to be inviting and enticing and for some reason this cover does neither of those things for me - I would walk straight past it if I saw it on a shelf. Secondly, the title - again, does nothing for me (and even after finishing the book I'm not sure that it is completely right for the book). Last, but not least, the description of the book mentions a ship. I have nothing against ships themselves (although my rampant tendency to sea sickness does mean that I generally steer clear of them) but books set on boats/ships/life on the sea tend to bore me.
So, as you can see, Jamrach's Menagerie was up against some pretty set prejudices from the very beginning with me! But in the end I was completely won over.
The book begins in 1857 in London's East End, 8 year old Jaffy Brown has a chance encounter with a tiger that leads to his employment with Mr Jamarch, a local animal poacher, importer and trader. Jaffy loves his work with Jamarch and his contact with all breeds of animals - he becomes known for his animal handling skills. Jaffy strikes up a tentative friendship with an older boy working with Jamarch, Tim Linver and through Tim his twin sister, Ishbel. When the chance comes up to be a part of a mission sailing off to the Dutch East Indies to catch a "dragon" both Jaffy and Tim volunteer - seeking fame, fortune and adventure.
The front of this book has a quote from A. S. Byatt describing this as "One of the best stories I've ever read" and I think this captures this book perfectly for me. It is an amazing story of adventure, friendship, loss and triumph told with incredible skill. Birch's writing evokes perfectly the scenes she is describing - I could feel myself walking through the streets of 1850's London with Jaffy, I could smell the decay and rot of the alleys and the stench from the animals in their cages. Just as the scenes set on the ship had me feeling queasy at times with "reading seasickness".
I am now feeling so confused with my Man Booker Prize favourite! It seems that each book I read from the shortlist quickly becomes my favourite of the moment!