Carol Birch's new novel is the evocative, moving, and original story of Jaffy Brown, a young boy in nineteenth-century London. Jaffy has an encounter with a tiger in an East-End street, and this leads him to make the acquaintance of Mr. Jamrach, a trader of exotic animals. Through working for Jamrach Jaffy meets a wide variety of characters in London, including Tim and Ishbel. These are twins one year his senior who come to shape his life.
Jaf's story is gripping and unusual. There is a refreshing lack of clichés, in either plot or narrative, and no lazy shortcuts. The writing is evocative, with Birch excellently portraying atmosphere, with an almost tactile sense of London and of life on board a ship.
Birch's real triumph however is in her characters and characterisation - the real menagerie. As the narrator, Jaf is the standard likeable everyman and moral compass of the tale. Those surrounding him, such as Dan Rymer, Ishbel, Skip, Captain Proctor, and Rainey are illustrated in deft strokes, each believable and rounded. This is especially evident in the character of Tim, Jaf's boyhood friend and later shipmate. Tim's youthful cruelty and tyranny is excellently portrayed as an aspect of youth. Similarly, the growth of their friendship is realistically handled, and their later scenes together are quite affecting.
The only issue with this novel is the sometimes inconsistent voice of Jaf, the first-person narrator. This was particularly noticeable at the beginning of the novel, when Jaf's voice shifted between that of his young, uneducated London patter, and that of his older, educated and experienced voice, who was ostensibly telling the story of his life. This shift between Jaf's memories and contemporary narration was not always clear.
This, however, is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent novel.