Carol Birch’s eleventh novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a rich and strange tale, haunted by fate, the sea, visions, insanity and the apparent cruelty of Providence. Its language is full of invention as it follows the life of little Jaffy Brown, who is ‘born twice’.
The first time is the actual moment when he enters the world, squealing and mewling, to become one of the urchins who scrambles through the sewers of nineteenth-century Bermondsey in search of the merest object of value. The second time is when Jaffy sees a tiger in the street: ‘The Sun himself came down and walked on earth.’ His life has been so limited that he barely knows what a tiger is; believing it to be some sort of cat, he walks up to it to stroke its nose. Fortunately for Jaffy, the tiger has just eaten and its owner, the titular Jamrach, is on hand to rescue him from certain death.
The tiger opens ‘magical’ doors and soon Jaffy is working for Jamrach, which leads him to embark on a journey to the ends of the earth, where every cloud and animal is made into something new. Ostensibly hunting whales for their ambergris, they are actually searching for a reported ‘dragon’,