Sunday, September 18, 2011
"Wrongly pigeonholed over the years as a purveyor of tear-jerking tales of bolshy northern lasses battling the odds, Carol Birch has always had a feel in her fiction for young men. [...] Now 60, Birch this year published a new novel with a young man at its heart [...]
Jaffy Brown, or 'Jaf', is the first-person narrator of her 11th novel, Jamrach's Menagerie, which last week put her on the Booker shortlist for the first time in her 25-year career, and saw her installed as second favourite to win the £50,000 prize behind Julian Barnes.
'Am I really?' she says with a startled look, when I mention the odds, 'I didn't know that' – but quickly plays it down. 'I have been very nervous over the past couple of weeks with the things I've had to do, and then I reached a point where I thought you might as well enjoy it, you might be dead next week. If you come across looking like a beached idiot, you just do.'
Jamrach's Menagerie is a picaresque adventure, set at the point in the mid-19th century when the whaling industry went into decline. It tells the story, in his own words, of a fatherless boy from Bermondsey who gets a job with an importer of wild animals and joins an expedition to south-east Asia on which the sailors embark hoping to capture a dragon. The novel offers a warm and richly detailed portrait of Ratcliffe Highway (now the Highway), the road running east from the City of London, that was once renowned as a hotbed of vice and criminality. It touches on Darwinian natural history, and takes its place in a long and exalted line of maritime storytelling that runs from Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Melville's Moby-Dick to Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander. [...]
'One of the things I said was don't put a moony girl on the cover. And they said we won't. It felt very liberating for me to get out of this whole woman thing; I did tend to write from a female perspective, it was so nice to get away from it, and have this freedom to go into something completely different.' "
— Susanna Rustin, Guardian