Tag Archives: Jamrach’s Menagerie

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of May paperbacks kicks of with Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival which tells the story of Julia Pastrana. Born in 1834, Julia is a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price even if that means allowing herself to be exhibited in a freak show. Her travels take her to Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg where she’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball and welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip. It’s an absorbing novel – the knowledge that Julia existed makes it particularly poignant – with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread which was something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. Still well worth reading, but no match for Jamrach’s Menagerie, one of my Blasts From the Past.

Emma Cline’s debut The Girls is also loosely based in fact – the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son. One day in 1969, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals in a Californian park. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back at the dramatic events that shaped the course of her lonely life. Cline’s novel succeeds in engaging her readers’ sympathy steering well clear of the prurient. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me but that’s a small criticism. Cover image

Dominc Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos has a very appealing premise. It draws together a landscape painting by a woman admitted to a Dutch Guild as a master painter in 1631, the person who inherited it in the 1950s and a celebrated Australian art historian, about to curate an exhibition fifty years after forging the work, who finds herself faced with the arrival of both versions of it. ‘As the three threads intersect with increasing and exquisite suspense, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerises while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present’ says the publisher. Very much like the sound of this one.

Entirely different but also appealing, A. L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet sees a fifty-nine-year-old senior civil servant struggling with his conscience over his government’s shenanigans and on the brink of spilling the beans. Meanwhile, Meg Williams is a forty-five-year-old bankrupt accountant just about managing to keep sober. Set over twenty-four hours in 2014, it’s about ‘two decent, damaged people trying to make moral choices in an immoral world: ready to sacrifice what’s left of themselves for honesty, and for a chance at tenderness’ says the publisher. I have a very on-again off-again relationship with Kennedy’s writing but find state-of-the-nation novels well-nigh impossible to resist, even though the nation’s in a very different state these days.

Cover imageLast but very far from least, is Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, another coup for the excellent Oneworld. Billed as a ‘biting satire’, it’s about a young man who’s been the subject of his sociologist father’s controversial studies, under the impression that the resultant book will make the family’s fortune. After his father’s murder it becomes clear that there is no book. What’s more the small town of Dickens is no longer on the map, thanks to the embarrassing nature of his father’s work. The young man sets about righting what he sees as this wrong, taking outrageous measures that land him before the Supreme Court. ‘The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game’ promises the publisher and clearly the Man Booker judges agreed.

That’s it for May’s paperback preview. A click on the first two titles will take you to my review and to a detailed synopsis for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with the first part, it’s here while May hardbacks are here.

Blasts from the Past: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I’d read one of Carol Birch’s earlier novels years before Jamrach’s Menagerie was published and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t particularly inclined to read more but I have a weakness for novels with a circus or carnival theme – Nights at the Circus, Carter Beats the Devil, Dreamland, Tipping the Velvet to name but a few – so this one snagged my attention with its dramatic rescue of eight-year-old Jaffy from a tiger’s jaws by menagerie owner, Charles Jamrach.

Stricken at what could so nearly have been a tragedy, Jamrach offers Jaffy a job cleaning out the animals’ cages which the boy happily accepts, becoming friends with Tim Liniver and falling in love with Tim’s sister. At the age of sixteen, Jaffy is sent with Tim to the Dutch East Indies aboard a whaling ship to capture a ‘dragon’ for the menagerie. The intrepid pair is successful but when the ‘dragon’ bites one of the crew it’s thrown overboard. The ship is later sunk – struck by a whale – leaving just twelve of the crew alive and stranded in two boats. As the twelve begin to die of thirst and starvation, the survivors are forced to resort to cannibalism. Eventually straws are drawn to decide who will be killed and devoured next. When land is struck, only two are left alive – half-mad with horror and grief.

Birch is a rip-roaring storyteller and this is quite a tale to tell. It’s packed full of vivid description, memorable characters and adventure. I remember racing through this novel one holiday, completely lost in it. Sadly, last year’s Orphans of the Carnival failed to match it for me.

Jaffy’s dramatic rescue is based on an incident in the nineteenth-century East End, now commemorated with a statue in Wapping, when an eight-year-old was indeed rescued from the jaws of a Bengal tiger owned by a Charles Jamrach who ran a menagerie. Sadly the latter part of the book is also based in fact – the dreadful fate of the whaler, Essex, rammed by a sperm whale in 1820.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch: Roll up, roll up…

Cover imageI suspect Carol Birch has something of a fascination with the world of circuses and freak shows. Set in the nineteenth century, her last novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie, followed Jaffy who is sent to the Dutch East Indies to capture a ‘dragon’ for the eponymous menagerie but finds himself shipwrecked. Orphans of the Carnival ventures far further into that world, telling the story of Julia Pastrana, a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price.

Julia tucks away the card a visiting impresario hands her, knowing that it’s her passport into the world outside the small town she’s never left. Heavily veiled, she takes the long and arduous journey to New Orleans accompanied only by the crude wooden doll her mother made for her before disappearing. Rates can hardly believe his luck when Julia arrives, establishing her in his sister-in-law’s lodging house where she meets several more of his clients. She is to make her debut topping the bill of a show that will include Cato, an exuberant pinhead. Julia’s reception is more than Rates could have hoped for – ostensibly a musical performance, everyone knows it’s her unveiling that the audience have paid for. So begins a career in which she will be handed on from manager to manager, travelling the world but not seeing it, lonely and hoping for love, sometimes reunited with the few friends she makes, including her dearest Cato. When Theo Lent makes her an offer, dangling the delights of Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg before her, she takes him up on it and the world opens up a little. She’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball, welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Love of a sort is found but this is not a story that was ever going to end well. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip.

Orphans of the Carnival takes its story from the bare bones of Julia Pastrana’s life and it’s this knowledge that makes the book so poignant. Julia suffered from a rare genetic condition but lived in a time when human deformity was paraded around and presented as entertainment. Birch spins her story well, carefully avoiding the sentimental yet always compassionate – there’s a particularly heartrending scene when Julia whispers to a Saint Petersburg fortune-teller ‘Am I human?’ It’s an absorbing novel with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread. I’m still not entirely sure why Birch decided to include it; it seemed something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. We live in much more enlightened times these days but as I read Birch’s novel I was reminded of those queasy trailers several years back for a Channel 4 series featuring people with deforming medical conditions. Maybe we’re neither as sensitive nor as enlightened as we like to think we are.