Jaffy Brown is growing up on the streets of London in the late nineteenth century. He is a fearless eight year old when he encounters a Bengal tiger on the street, reaches up to pet it on the nose, and ends up dangling from the tiger’s mouth. That experience introduces Jaffy to a man named Jamrach and his menagerie of animals found around the world. Jaffy is invited to work for Jamrach where he befriends Tim, a boy a bit older than him whose competitive nature causes some strain in the friendship. When both boys are given the opportunity to find and capture a sea dragon as part of a three year whaling expedition, they do no hesitate to sign on to the adventure. What unfolds is an experience which will indelibly change their lives as they brave the unforgiving power of the sea together.
Carol Birch’s Orange Prize nominated novel of a young street urchin’s coming of age on a whaling boat is filled with quirky characters who are not always likable. The book is narrated by an adult Jaffy who is looking back on his boyhood years, and so there is an adult feel to this tale of youth. Early on, Birch establishes the uneasy friendship between Tim and Jaffy. The early chapters are devoted to the boys’ time in London and is filled with descriptions of the rough city streets. I found the early going slow paced, but when Birch begins the saga of the whaling expedition, the novel picks up considerably.
Birch’s writing is highly descriptive and allows for a solid sense of place.
The sea lapped over the transom, poured up the deck and swirled about the submerged companionways, and a colossal shift took place in the heart of the ship as three or four hundred barrels of oil moved as one with a sound like the end of all days. Sound: the sea, the wild wind, the voices of our crew as the brittle, wooden speck we lived on rolled over like the slippery pole at the fair, and the sky flew up as the swingboat soared. – from Jamrach’s Menagerie -
The latter half of Jamrach’s Menagerie is not for the faint of heart. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that the themes of survival and sacrifice are strong. Many of the images in this part of the novel are disturbing and graphic. There were times I set the book aside and was not eager to pick it back up again.
I have mixed feelings about Jamrach’s Menagerie. I found the middle part of the novel compelling and fast paced, a nice change from the first part of the book which dragged for me. Some of the latter parts were a bit too graphic for my liking. On the other hand, Birch is skilled at developing her characters and setting the scene. She brings to life the glory, pain, and terror which were found on the whaling ships in the late nineteenth century. Jamrach’s Menegarie is, at its heart, a sea adventure.
Readers who enjoy a good yarn and want to experience life on the high seas through the eyes of a young boy, might want to give this one a try. Birch peels back the skin of her characters and exposes their emotions in a raw and dark way that is hard to read at times. Perhaps it is this which makes this book the most memorable for me.
- Quality of Writing: