LONDON — When the novelist and mother-of-two Carol Birch isn’t reading — or trying to write in peace at her home in Lancaster, England — she’s learning to play the concertina, a fitting instrument for a writer who loves a good rhythm.
Her 11th novel, “Jamrach’s Menagerie” (Doubleday), has been short-listed for Britain’s top literary accolade, the Man Booker Prize, and in parts it reads like an oral poem. The prize will be announced on Tuesday.
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator Jaffy Brown recalls his impoverished childhood by the Thames in south London:
“And sometimes at night the sound of sailors sang out over the winking water — voices wild and dark to me as the elements themselves — lilts from everywhere, strange tongues that lisped and shouted, melodies running up and down like many small flights of stairs, making me feel as if I was far away in those strange hot-sun places.”
Partly a romp through seedy Victorian London, part adventure tale of danger and pain on a whaling ship in search of a dragonlike creature, Brown’s life story is defined by animal instincts.
Although Birch counts “Moby Dick,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Das Boot” among her favorite reads, the petite, red-haired author says she’d never describe herself as a fan of the sea novel.
“I was just moved by the idea of very young boys at sea. But I didn’t want this to be a heavy book because there was great joy in it for them, too,” says the author over a coffee at Morton’s in Berkeley Square one overcast autumn afternoon. “And I felt quite free while writing it even though I knew it would alienate some people.”
Birch, who was long listed for the Man Booker in 2003 for her novel “Turn Again Home,” a working-class family saga set in Manchester, said her latest book was initially inspired by the Victorian-era Ratcliffe Highway in London’s East End, a colorful criminals’ paradise. And while the novel is a work of fiction, Jamrach — who dealt in wild animals and even worked with circus master P.T. Barnum — was real.
The author, who began writing seriously after moving to Ireland while in her early 30s, counts James Joyce among her literary heroes. “I love how he plays with words, the joy he took in using words the way an artist uses paints. He made me want to be a writer,” she says.
In between penning novels, Birch has been raising her two sons, who are now aged 20 and 22. “Although I’m very much an owl, I do write during the day — I got used to all the noise of my sons and their friends coming and going,” she says.
Birch is up against a tough crowd this week: Fellow competitors include Julian Barnes for the much-lauded — although some would say overrated —“The Sense of an Ending,” and first-time novelist Stephen Kelman’s “Pigeon English,” which is loosely based on a Nigerian immigrant boy who was murdered in London in 2000.
Birch says she’s excited to have been short-listed, although the newfound fame has forced her to put her next novel —which is also partly historical — and the beloved concertina lessons on hold.