Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011) 348 p.
While wandering the streets of 19th century London, in the harbour district of the East End, eight-year old Jaffy Brown encounters a Bengal tiger and brazenly strokes it on the nose. The tiger takes Jaffy up in its jaws, and he is only rescued by the timely intervention of its owner, Mr. Jamrach. By way of apology, Jamrach gives young Jaffy a job at his warehouse, where he imports and sells a diverse menagerie of exotic creatures: a lion with the “stern, sad face of a scholar,” snakes “faintly flexing upon one another like ropes coiled high on the quay,” and a giraffe, “immense, coming down at me from the sky to wet me with the heat of it flexing nostrils.”
Jaffy is enchanted by the animals and grows to love his job dearly. He becomes half-friend and half-enemy to an employee a few years older than him, Tim Linver, as well as falling in love with Tim’s sister Ishbel. They grow up together on the filthy streets of Dickensian London, and when Jaffy is sixteen, he and Tim find themselves dispatched by Jamrach to the Dutch East Indies, charged with finding and capturing a mysterious “dragon.”
Jamrach’s Menagerie is one of the novels on the Booker shortlist that I was most looking forward to reading, largely based on its intriguing plot synopsis. And the novel, while dripping with deserved literary grandeur, certainly has that wonderful sense of adventure to it: leaving London behind on the “watery road” of the Thames, serving aboard a whale ship, the serene volcanoes of the Azores, and the culmination of the dragon expedition on a stifling tropical island swarming with terrifying monsters. Yet it’s what comes after all this that truly makes the novel: a calamity befalls the ship, and the story suddenly leaps from a rollicking boy’s adventure into a struggle for survival that is grisly, horrifying and profoundly sad. I don’t want to spoil anything, but those of you familiar with the notorious tale of the whaleship Essex should be able to guess what lies in store for the crew.
This sounds like a very disconcerting jump, and it was to a degree, but Birch is a hugely talented writer who is able to make the novel’s various parts – Dickensian urchin days, mariner’s adventure, monster-hunting expedition, survival at sea, and bittersweet homecoming wracked with guilt – come together without ever straining the flow of the story. I was personally ambivalent about the first half of the novel, and felt that it only truly began to pick up once the crew landed on Komodo Island; however, beyond the wreck of the ship, I was completely hooked and finished it in one sitting. Jamrach’s Menagerie is an excellent, multi-layered novel that combines an exotic adventure with a more subtle story about the sweetness of life and the inevitability of death, and it’s one of those books that I’m certain would only grow stronger with multiple readings.
A very serious contender, definitely knocking Half-Blood Blues out of the running. It would be a worthy winner, too, superior to several other Booker winners I’ve read in the past.
Jamrach’s Menagerie at The Book Depository