When young Jaffy Brown comes face to face with an escaped tiger in the streets of London, it leads to him being offered a job with Mr Jamrach, a dealer in wild animals. For the next few years Jaffy works at Jamrach’s menagerie, helping to take care of the animals – until one day he gets the chance to go to sea in search of a very special creature…
This novel, the first I’ve read by Carol Birch, grabbed me from the very first page. It was everything I love in a book: historical fiction set in the Victorian period with a fast-paced plot and quirky, interesting characters. When a few chapters into the novel Jaffy set off on his voyage and it became clear that most of the book was going to take place at sea I was slightly worried as I often find seafaring stories boring – but not this time! I was pleased to find that I enjoyed reading about Jaffy’s adventures on board the Lysander, visiting distant lands and battling against storms, starvation and superstition as much as I enjoyed the chapters set in working-class 19th century London.
From tigers and whales to exotic birds and giant reptiles we encounter a large number of animals, both at Jamrach’s London menagerie and in their natural habitat (and be warned that Birch doesn’t shy away from describing the cruel ways in which these creatures were treated in the 19th century). But more importantly, we learn a lot about human nature, about friendship, love and loyalty. Jaffy, as our narrator, is the character around whom all the others revolve including Ishbel, the girl he loves; Tim, his childhood friend and rival; and Dan Rymer, the older sailor who becomes a father figure to the boys.
Birch’s writing is atmospheric and descriptive, giving the story an almost supernatural, mystical feel at times. And although there were a few occasions where I thought the plot suffered slightly from taking second place to the detailed descriptions, for the most part I found the book completely gripping. A good old-fashioned adventure story and a very enjoyable and entertaining read!