Although Carol Birch's new novel derives from a real-life incident – the sinking of the whale-ship Essex in 1820 – and, in Charles Jamrach (1815-1891), hovers over a genuine personage, two of its chief references are straightforwardly literary. The first is Thackeray's ballad of maritime cannibalism "Little Billee". The second is the celebrated Jack London short story in which, as a gang of ship-wrecked sailors grimly debate their chances of survival, the rescue boat heaves into view five minutes after the cabin boy's throat has been cut. All this is to ignore a series of semaphore signals to the literature of the nautical East End that takes in everything from Our Mutual Friend and Thomas Burke's Limehouse Nights to Arthur Morrison's thriller The Hole in the Wall.
Jamrach himself – avuncular, good-natured yet commercially savvy – is not much more than the titular presence, its expedition-fixer and destiny-broker. Top billing in the story is occupied by his wide-eyed protégé Jaffy Brown, a fixture in the establishment since the day he had to be rescued from the jaws of a marauding tiger in Ratcliffe Highway.
The menagerie's profits come from importing rare specimens for collectors. When free-handed Mr Fledge sets his heart on an "Ora" (presumably some kind of Komodo Dragon), Jaffy, together with his fast friend Tim and Mr Jamrach's veteran chargé d'affaires Dan Rymer, are sent out east on the whaler Lysander with orders to bring one home. Run to earth on an Indonesian atoll, the monster is let out of its cage, runs amok and disappears over the side. Omen or not, there follows a gruesome catalogue of storm, shipwreck and slow starvation.
While crammed with elemental traumas and high-grade derring-do, Jamrach's Menagerie lacks any fundamental narrative pivot. You know that, of the dozen or so castaways flung into the sinking Lysander's whale-boats off the coast of Chile, Jaffy at least will survive. Most of the special effects rely on Birch's ability to handle idiom. Here the preferred model is a kind of primitive lyricism, in which "ordinary" mid-Victorian language is put to dramatic use. Discovering Jamrach's office, Jaffy notes: "A mild flutter danced along with light from the lantern as we passed through the sparrow and bluebird room. The office was bright. Bulter was pouring coffee from a tall pot. Steam rose in slow, hot coils, mingling with blue smoke."
Not all of these linguistic flourishes are entirely convincing. "Got any blunt?" someone nervously demands when the dragon lumbers into view, meaning tobacco rather than the standard Victorian usage of money. "Boodle" as a synonym for cash we might allow, even if the mid-19th-century definition was tending towards "funds illicitly acquired", but to describe someone as "a laugh" crosses the line into late 20th-century demotic.
I wasn't entirely won over by the finale, in which Jaffy scoops up his childhood sweetheart, acquires some "learning" and settles down to read Darwin and Haeckel. Everyone in neo-Victorian fiction reads Darwin: a character who spent his time poring over the The Raff's Journal would make a nice change. But these are quibbles. Seen in the round, Jamrach's Menagerie is a terrific example of the virtues of finding a style and sticking to it: as good as anything Peter Carey has done in this line and, in certain exalted moments, even better.
DJ Taylor's latest novel is 'At the Chime of a City Clock' (Constable)
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