Secular shelf life
Shipwreck raises good questions
By Carol Birch
Canongate Books. 334 pages. £7.99
ISBN 978 1 847 676 573
In the East End of London at some time during the 19th century, an eight-year-old boy met a Bengal tiger in the street and stroked its nose.
This event is the starting point for Carol Birch’s excellent novel, and it is an incident which the narrator, Jaffy, describes as his ‘second birth’. Encountering the tiger, which is being brought to Mr. Jamrach’s Menagerie, brings him into a new world of exotic creatures and ambitions: Jaffy is offered a job by Mr. Jamrach and he meets the entrancing siblings Ishbel and Tim. In time this job takes him on a voyage to the South Seas aboard a whaler seeking a specimen komodo dragon. It is at this point that Carol Birch turns to her other source, the wreck of the whaler Essex in 1820, and her narrative turns from fantastical colour to the monochrome horror of a shipwreck.
When I started this book I thought I knew what I was in for: the squalor of Victorian backstreets; outlandish Dickensian characters; an amount of irony and literary reference. You certainly get that, but as the book develops the themes of survival and danger become more marked and painful. Through the whole book Jaffy has to navigate an extraordinary world in which friends are menacing and no one is to be trusted; by the end adventure has turned to horror. This is a much scarier world than that of Dickens.
To the cross
So why read this rather (over?) long book? I think for two reasons. First, it entertains in the best way, stretching the imagination and taking the reader to another world. Second, because it brings the reader back to this world with a lot of questions. What makes humanity precious? What does betrayal mean? How would you survive if stripped of everything? How do you deal with guilt? All these questions make us run to the cross.
They should make us look to the cross with fresh gratitude and hunger. And I hope we will go from the cross to the world with renewed conviction of the truth, as well as a deeper compassion for those without the truth.