A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Archive for October 2011

Carol Birch: Jamrach’s Menagerie

with one comment

This year’s Booker Prize brought out the best and the worst of the UK literati. The best was the long-awaited triumph of Julian Barnes, thrice the bridesmaid but never before the bride, for The Sense of an Ending (which I haven’t read yet, owing to my women-only diet, but should be a worthy winner if his previous efforts are anything to go by).The worst was a maelstrom of barracking and back-biting about the shortlisting and  judging process, centring around the issue of readability versus quality.

The pity of it was that the debate shifted the focus away from the shortlisted novels, many of which were controversial and intriguing works in their own rights — none more so than Carol Birch‘s 11th novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie. Set in the 19th century, the book weaves together two historical happenings — an escaped Bengal tiger’s brush with an eight-year-old boy in Victorian London and the shooting of a teenager sailor by his childhood friend after drawing straws — into a rich and wide-ranging adventure.

Told through the eyes of young Jaffy Brown, who takes to sea in search of a real-life dragon wanted for a wealthy client’s collection, the story has an episodic, almost picaresque feel to it. However, unlike many picaresque novels, in which writers often struggle to stitch substance into sensational tales of derring do, the novel brims with meaning and insight. Birch achieves this through her attention to detail and the fresh vision she brings to each scene. Thanks to her skill, even the ragged finger nails of  a street urchin take on a compelling quality, while the chaotic shop and menagerie of the kindly Jamrach are heady, enchanting creations.

But the crowning achievement comes when calamity strikes and Jaffy and is shipwrecked. Cast adrift in lifeboats for a good 100 pages or so, the motley band is pushed to the limits of existence and forced to taste the dregs of mortality (and each other).

A huddle of characters bobbing around on the ocean with nothing to do except butcher and eat those who die every now and again sounds like a commissioning editor’s nightmare, but in Birch’s  hands it is subtle, compelling and disturbingly visceral. I’ve never eaten human flesh (shock admission, I know), but after reading this book I feel as though I can still taste it.

Should Birch have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize? Was this one of the six best books published this year? I don’t know. Perhaps the plot is a little simplistic and linear. Maybe the later part of the book could have done with an edit or two more. To be honest, I don’t really care.

Whether it deserved the accolade or not, this is an exceptionally good book that whips along at a cracking pace, engrossing the reader in a world sturdy enough to bear the weight of some deep insights into what it means to be a member of humanity. Quality and readability combined. Who’d have thunk it?

Picture by Monceau

Advertisements

Written by Ann Morgan

October 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Jilly Cooper: Prudence

with 4 comments

Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking much the same when a friend thrust a copy of Prudence into my hands with instructions to read it for my blog.  Her attempt to reassure me that this was one of the early novels ‘before she got into threesomes’ and that anyway sex was only ever a tiny part of the Cooper experience only made things worse.

Who was she trying to kid? I’d seen the book jackets with the horse whips and basques and suspenders: Jump and Buck and whatever else they were called. Clearly — clearly — Jilly Cooper was all about sex. You didn’t have to have read her to know that. And if this was Jilly Cooper without the sex, it was definitely going to be very weak and very dull.  Like green tea without the… green.

Not a bit of it. From the gutsy opening scene at a raffish London party — complete with a guest who mistakes it for a fancy dress party and arrives togged up as a goat only to have his udders hurled out of the window — you know you are in for a witty, irreverent ride. As Prudence follows the mysterious Pendle to the Mulholland’s Bohemian family seat and tries to unpick the emotional knots that bind the family and herself, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Forget the tea, this is gin and ginger wine with a whisky chaser to boot.

One of the best things about it is the humour, which comes not only from a number of neatly contrived calamities, but also from Cooper’s sparky prose. There are some excellent gags and oneliners (‘He’s been away all week shooting.’ ‘Grouse?’ ‘No. Butter commercials in Devon’) and some killer descriptions (the mother who’d ‘set like a pink blancmange on the sofa’, the dashingly serious journalist: ‘Each time he opened his mouth, I expected the Panorama signature tune to strike up’), some of which are every bit as good as Gibbons, Coward or Stoppard.

That said, it’s important to take the book on its own terms. High literature, this ain’t — no matter what the Harpers & Queen reviewer quoted as branding Cooper ‘the Jane Austen of our time’ on the jacket may think. Nor does it pretend to be. The plot is unapologetically predictable and the characterisation veers to fit it, much as the characters themselves must when they get behind the wheels of their expensive motors in a gin-sozzled haze.

The comfortable, upper-upper-middle-class horsiness will be too much for some readers to take. But those that can are in for a whole scullery-load of fun. This is a romp; a jolly; a lark. It is the definition of all those feel-good adjectives that have been worn thin on the jackets of a billion airport novels up and down the land. It is exactly the book to curl up with on a winter evening, to take to the beach or to stretch out with on the croquet lawn (whether you have one or not).

Thanks Anna — doubtless I’ll be back for more.

Picture by Walt Stoneburner

Written by Ann Morgan

October 17, 2011 at 4:53 pm