Star rating – 6/10
For modern fiction set in Victorian era England to be convincing, it has to effortlessly transport the reader to the Dickensian world we feel we are so familiar with, and this new novel by Carol Birch falls slightly short of succeeding in this mission. It is the tale of Jaffy Brown, who comes to the attention of Mr. Jamrach by bravely, or stupidly depending on your point of view, approaching a Bengal tiger in the streets of his native East End of London, in order to stroke its nose. Happily he is clutched from the jaws of death, literally in this case as the said tiger is preparing to swallow him, and lives on to become part of a seafaring expedition organised by Mr. Jamrach that will prove to be an even more testing experience for him.
Most of the book involves this ill fated voyage, where Jaffy and his fellow crew members discover hidden reserves of strength and endurance that they could not have imagined they possessed. But for me I couldn’t quite work out what the book was trying to achieve, or when I would get to the main point of the story. Possibly the historical construct Birch has cleverly created comes to dominate, when the story itself really should have stood out a bit more.
I wanted to like this book more than I did, which is a shame as Jaffy is certainly a likeable character who goes through a horrific and life changing experience. And I must mention the all too neat ending, which I felt was unnecessarily contrived to produce happiness where to let the horrors of Jaffy’s experience prevail would have probably been a sight more realistic.