I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this book. However from the first page I fell in love with it.
Jaffy Brown is a young boy growing up in poverty in nineteenth century London. Now, as soon as I know that I immediately think 'mother on the gin, violent father, sadistic employer, life of crime.' But that is not Jaffy's life at all. It's true that he and his mother do have to do a midnight flit from an unsuitable man, but they flit successfully and never hear from him again. Jaffy and his mother are close and he is a happy and confident boy. That's not to say that Birch presents an idealised version of their lives. The poverty and deprivation is very real. This is a description of children searching the sewers for dropped change:
Crawling up and down the new sewers like maggots ourselves, thin grey boys, thin grey girls, grey as the mud we walked in, splashing along the dark, round-mouthed tunnels that stank like hell. The sides were caked in crusty, black shit. Peeling out pennies and trying to fill our pockets, we wore our handkerchiefs over our noses and mouths, our eyes stang and ran. Sometimes we retched. It was something we did, like a sneeze or a belch.........But our pockets were never full. I remember the gnawing in my belly, the hunger retch.
An amazing thing happens to Jaffy. He is walking along the street one day when he comes face to face with a tiger. The tiger picks him up in its mouth, walks a way with him and then puts him down unhurt. The tiger belongs to Mr Jamrach, an animal importer. He is very apologetic and concerned, and thanks to him Jaffy's life takes a new turn.
Jaffy goes to work for Jamrach. He works with the animals, a job he loves and has a gift for. Eventually, after a number of years Jaffy joins an expedition to discover a dragon (presumably a Komodo dragon), which one of Jamrach's clients wants. The story takes a different turn here, and I don't want to give too much away. Jaffy has a gift for friendship and family. His family expands, first his mother, then Jamrach's company and then the ship's crew. He gets along with people which makes him a good observer. He is tested severely in his adventures, and is inevitably changed, but can he keep true to himself.
I love Birch's writing. These are Jaffy's thoughts after leaving an island where he had heard mysterious drumming:
The gongs of Sumba played in my head as I lay thinking in the night, they'd been playing in my head ever since we'd left that place, their low droning somnolence sending out into the darkness long sound ribbons that scarcely vibrated but changed constantly in some shimmering way, simple as silk. The music was like a snake swallowing its tail, a lullaby that repeats and repeats, softening and sharpening your senses at the same time, like a drug.
This is my favourite book of the year so far and I think it will repay re-reading.