Book Talk: From tigers to dragons, with the sea in between

Thu Aug 11, 2011 5:08am EDT
 
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Jaffy Brown is a boy of eight, minding his business in the crowded streets of 19th century London's Ratcliffe Highway, when he comes face-to-face with a Bengal tiger, pats him on the nose, and promptly has his head seized in its teeth.

Rescued, the impoverished Jaffy -- hero of Carol Birch's "Jamrach's Menagerie" -- is given a job tending animals by the tiger's owner, Jamrach, and discovers that he has a way with living things. He also meets the handsome, confident Tim Linver, who becomes a friend and a bit of a rival.

When Tim joins an expedition to find a "dragon" in Asia for a wealthy collector, Jaffy, unwilling to be left behind, signs up as well. Their voyage to the faraway tropics in search of the animal turns into an adventure fraught with challenges and tests far beyond their expectations.

Birch spoke about humans, animals and the book, which was long-listed for the 2011 Man Booker award.

Q: What got you started?

A: "I became interested when I was researching my previous novel. I really fell in love with the whole Ratcliffe Highway area. During reading about that I came across the character of Jamrach and his menagerie, and the story of the boy and the tiger, which was a true story. I became quite fascinated by this, I don't know why, and started thinking about what that would do to you, to be walking down the street and suddenly be confronted with such danger and wildness at such a young age, in the midst of a very ordinary day.

"So I started first of all with the point of view of the little boy. I started making a fictional little boy, which became Jaffy and his life in London. Roundabout the same time I was reading about the ship Essex, survivors' accounts and so on. What really got me about that, and I found it very moving, was how young everybody was. The crew were boys, they went to sea at such a terribly young age. With the Essex, even the captain was only 28. I think there were a couple of older blokes on board, but in general it was a very young crew. And at the time, I was surrounded by young teenagers, boys and girls, and I kept thinking, a couple of hundred years ago they would have been living very different lives. It came together out of all of these elements."

Q: What makes sea voyages so interesting?   Continued...