The Dilettante’s Rules of Reading: #47: “Any novel that uses the word ‘menagerie’ must be good.”
Indeed! So you can perhaps imagine my high level of expectation for a novel that uses ‘menagerie’ in its title, right? And right from the open, Jamrach’s Menagerie doesn’t disappoint. It kicks-off with these wonderful lines:
I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.
Immediately engaging, it reminded me of the vivid start to Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, (see my review here), which ironically won the 2011 Orange Prize beating out a strong shortlist — and the long-listed Jamrach’s Menagerie.
So sets in motion the story of Jaffy Brown, recounted in the first person, who is rescued out of the jaws of the tiger by Mr Jamrach himself. Mr Jamrach has Tim Linver, a boy near Jaffy’s age, buy Jaffy a raspberry puff, perhaps in part to purchase his silence. For a poor boy like Jaffy, such a treat is a wonder, but the taste of the raspberry puff comes back to haunt him later in the book in a way that he couldn’t at that point imagine. Jamrach offers him a job working in his menagerie, into which exotic animals from all over the world are brought back in order to satisfy the curiosity of rich gentlemen in 19th Century London.
There he develops a fraught friendship with Tim, and is introduced through him to his sister, Ishbel, who he develops quite a crush for, as well as Dan Rymer, Jamrach’s animal hunter. When Tim is sent off with Dan to the South Pacific to bring back a dragon on the whale ship Lysander, Jaffy feels compelled to go with them on the adventure of a lifetime.
There follows a wonderful series of scenes, including whale hunts at sea and dragon hunts on a remote, jungle-covered island. There are ill portents aplenty, surfacing before they even find the dragon. Trying to locate it, they go from island to island talking to the locals, who some on the ship fear might be cannibals… [p140]:
Then we had the Lord’s Prayer – ‘… deliver us from evil…’ – hanging our heads and thinking about cannibals and swamps and monsters awaiting us tomorrow.
Then when the hunting party finds the almost mythical beasts, Jaffy sees [p156]:
A mess of them like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass, a red and pink rag trailing festoons, the grinning head of which, half severed and hanging back, revealed it to be one of their own.
The subsequent hunt is breath-taking stuff, wonderfully vivid, a joy to read.
With their dragon caught, they cage him on the ship and start out for home, a passage in which their lives are placed in peril, chased by storms, water spouts, and bad luck. With the dragon secured in its pen in the fo’c’s’le, we have Jaffy ruminating on their new passenger thus, [p177]:
How was it that we became so afraid of the dragon? Not just as anyone would be afraid of a wild animal with claws and teeth, but as if it was something more. We took on bad luck with that creature.
When disaster strikes, the question becomes: to what lengths will people go in order to survive against impossible odds? Birch executes these scenes with such gut-wrenching accuracy it’s impossible to put the book down.
The story is based on a combination of unrelated, actual events. Jamrach was a real, Victorian-era importer of animals, and a boy did go up to a tiger which had escaped its cage and try to pat it only to be bitten and rescued by the owner. The second event is the sinking of the whaleship Essex (which of course provided the inspiration for Melville’s Moby-Dick), and those who survived it.
There are lovely nods to Moby-Dick. Ishbel for Ishmael, for instance. And Jaffy seeing a painting of a ship in Jamrach’s shop, just as Ishmael sees one in the pub-cum-boarding house he stays in the night before he climbs aboard his own ship. Says Jaffy, [p38]:
The raised lantern revealed a painting of a curious vessel that reared up tall out of the sea at either end, a high-shouldered, many-turreted, floating castle of a ship, a thing upon which in a dream you might embark and sail away to the ends of the earth.
There are, no doubt, many others.
Vivid right from the start, Jamrach’s Menagerie is an excellent read, and Jaffy Brown and the crew he sails with are memorable characters. I’ll not look at a raspberry puff in the same way again!
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
Source: the bookshelf rainbow