It contains an extraordinary premise, based on a true tale that contains a heart-wrenching moral dilemma. Young Jaffy Brown and his shipmates are faced with a life-changing decision when they're shipwrecked on a trip to the Dutch East Indies; it's the sort of decision that most of us would find repugnant. But we can't know how he or any of his companions felt as they were fighting for survival. We would probably all do the same, though I think I would rather die. The argument, though, is what constitutes true friendship in these circumstances and that could be debatable. The characters are three-dimensional and the dynamics fascinating. And I can't reveal more without giving the story away.
Carol Birch gets inside the mind of an 8-year-old boy and follows his progress into adulthood. His first brush with death occurs when he strokes a tiger's nose and ends up in its mouth. The author's research into the 19th century bustle of London, life at sea and the barbaric business of whaling in those days evokes a strong sense of place and time. I wondered for a while why I was reading a seafaring story but a strong plot and heaps of conflict, coupled with the quality of the writing reeled me in and I couldn't put it down until I'd reached the final words.
Jamrach's Menagerie is published by Canongate Books (2011). Join the discussion on Twitter #jamrach
Carol Birch will be appearing at the St John's Theatre and Arts Centre in Listowel, Ireland on 2 June 2012, in conversation with Carlo Gebler.