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Carol Birch – Jamrach’s Menagerie
“A great, salty, historical adventure”. This is what the dust-jacket of Carol Birch’s Booker nominated novel promises us. Young men in search of new lands on the high seas! Battles with exotic creatures in the islands of the Pacific! An unprecedented amount of sea shanties! As someone whose preferred post-University career is still pirate, I was quite excited about jumping into Birch’s 19th Century world, but ultimately I was left dissatisfied. Jamrach’s Menagerie is not a bad book and is excellent and thought provoking in places, but a combination of poor plotting and bad characterisation means that it’s quite the missed opportunity
The book’s told retrospectively from the point of view of Jaffy Brown, a young boy born into poverty in London, who finds himself swept off to see on a whaling ship after a fateful encounter with a tiger. The plot hops around from London to the Azores to Cape Town to the islands of the Pacific, and Birch paints these places brilliantly with some elegant prose. The smells and sights of Jaffy’s journey evoke themselves clearly (sometimes too clearly – Jaffy’s first whale killing makes for an absolutely gruesome few pages) in the reader’s mind.
The vivid world that Birch creates, however, is really nothing more than a tempting mirage, because they are inhabited with characters that are nothing more than very rough sketches. Characters are phased in and out of the story seemingly at random and never given anything approaching a personality or back story. The most interesting characters – Jamrach himself and Ishbel, Jaffy’s love interest – barely appear after the first few chapters. We get to know Jaffy fairly well after spending 340 pages with him, but we spend an equal amount of time with his supposed best friend, Tim, and know absolutely nothing about him. This lacklustre characterisation isn’t helped by the fact that the plot simply hops from place to place in a series of set pieces. There’s plenty of space in between the big moments that could be filled with character development, but instead it’s pumped full of Jaffy’s verbose and essentially pointless philosophising. Birch has her reasons for not fleshing out Jaffy’s shipmates – it haunts Jaffy that he barely knows the men he was at sea with, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have given at least one of them a jot of personality. But the biggest failure is that the relationship between Jaffy and Tim is never explored in any depth. We’re simply told to assume that they have an interesting, complicated past together, so much so that it feels like there’s a prequel to this book that Birch never released.
Nevertheless, if you can manage to plod through the first 200 or so pages then biggest success comes in the final third of the book, where Jaffy, Tim and their fellow sailors find themselves stranded on the open ocean. It’s here that Birch stops drawing pen-portraits (or should that be pen-landscapes?) of the places Jaffy visits and starts to add some colour to the characters she had only sketched earlier on. This section really is a painfully beautiful (at least, Birch’s writing is beautiful – the situation the sailors find themselves in is quite the opposite) exploration of what happens when humans are pushed well beyond their limits. You just wish that Tim and Jaffy’s relationship had been explored better earlier on in the book; with some better characterisation the tragic end to their friendship could have been something quite monumental. It’s an upsetting and disturbing end nonetheless, but feels a little forced, and doesn’t break your heart quite as much as it should.
So, to return the promises on the dust-jacket. Is it a rollicking good adventure book? Kind of, but the plot’s more a series of exciting set-pieces linked by the protagonists pseudo-philosophical rambling than anything truly ‘adventurous’; there’s no tension between the big moments. Is it salty? It is probably the saltiest book I have ever read. But is this a great book? Quite simply; no. It’s a decent enough read, but you really have to shred through a lot of bloody whale blubber to get to the ambergris.
AD Miller – Snowdrops
Snowdrops is Miller’s debut novel, a crime story but not perhaps a crime thriller, set in modern day Russia and from the point of view of Nick Platt; an English lawyer who lived in Moscow during the Russian oil ‘boom’. It is written as a confession from Nick to his fiancé as to what happened to him during his time spent abroad in Russia, yet it sticks to a primarily straight forward timeline as he describes the events that he found himself embroiled in, events he undoubtedly regrets. From the very first page, you know something bad is going to happen, the question is “how?”. Nick, the protagonist, seems like a pretty average guy with decent morals so how does he wind up playing an important role in two different crime schemes that seem fairly transparent from the start?
Miller himself lived in Russia as the Moscow correspondent for The Economist and this definitely played a part in the success of his debut novel. The scene is set remarkably well, allowing readers to vividly imagine what Moscow is like, and how it must feel to be a foreigner in a place full of different customs, morals, laws and people. In this sense, it is a wonderful novel; the prose is absorbing and creates a dark atmosphere full of tension.
However, it is not the type of book where you become attached to the characters. You know a crime is going to take place from the very first page, so it is difficult not to be wary of the characters. Two of the characters, Masha and Katya are two ‘sisters’ who are involved with one of the scams, and whilst reading it is clear that there is a hidden layer behind their apparent motive (helping an ‘aunt’ find a new apartment), yet infuriatingly Nick goes along with what they want from him because he feels he is falling in love with Masha. The other scam is a business one involving bankers, lawyers and a dodgy character called the Cossack. Nick knows that the Cossack cannot really be trusted but he continues with his work anyway despite oddities in the pursuing of the case.
It’s a difficult novel to define as it’s one of those books where nothing much actually happens. It’s a crime novel because it involves different plots and scams but it is not a thrilling murder mystery novel (like the blurb led me to believe). At times I found it quite slow paced but at the same time I had to see how it concluded; how the great number of loose ties came together. It’s an intriguing novel and the focus is much different to what was expected and this is what I think has led it to be such a hit with the Booker judges. The intrigue keeps you gripped, and keeps you reading.