Jamrach’s Menagerie

If you’ve been housebound too long and yearning to get away, consider taking a trip with Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie.  After a slow but startling start,  Birch offers an exciting adventure that turns macabre, and a journey that takes a boy into manhood.

Jaffy, a young London street urchin with the life of a Dickens character and the yearning for Robert Louis Stevenson experiences, is the center of the action.  After he “strokes” the nose of an escaped tiger and survives being dragged in the tiger’s soft-mouthed embrace, Jaffy connects with Jamrach, the tiger’s owner and keeper of exotic animals.  Adding drudge work at the menagerie to his other menial jobs to help his mother keep food on the table, Jaffy finds he has a penchant for calming animals.

After a short section establishing Jaffy with his new friends, Tim and Ishbel, twins whose lives are just as poor, Jaffy grows into a teenager and starts his real adventure – off to sea with Tim and Dan, the hunter and explorer, to find an exotic dragon for Jamrach’s collection.  Birch offers vivid accounts of whaling in the nineteenth century that would rival Moby Dick (only not as boring) and a jungle chase for the “dragon” that has the allure of Treasure Island.  Jaffy’s sympathetic skills with animals are no match for the captured monster; a crocodile loose on the deck of a ship creates terror and excitement.

As Jaffy’s story evolves from being eaten by a tiger, sailing on a whaler, chased by a dragon, and being caught up in a waterspout on the sea, Birch’s tone is all adventure and vicarious thrills.  Suddenly, the happy adventure turns; a storm capsizes the ship and sends Jaffy into an endurance battle with the sea and his surviving shipmates.  This section seems to go on interminably.  Only the knowledge that Jaffy lived to tell the story may keep you reading, but the slow decline of the sailors, along with graphic descriptions of cannibalism and the “Custom of the Sea” to sacrifice bodies so that others can survive is hard to read.  Birch uses a suspenseful monotone of dialogue that adds to the battering effect of reading the details.

When Jaffy finally is rescued and returned to his home, he fears facing Tim’s sister and mother; the news of how he survived has preceded him.  Although they accept his fate and his actions, he cannot bear that he has survived.  Birch effectively captures Jaffy’s brooding and self-torture, returning him to the sea and back yet again to make peace with himself and Ishbel, his first love.

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for fiction this year, Jamrach’s Menagerie goes beyond adventure, historical perspective, and shock value; Birch has offered an introspective into survival and learning how to live with oneself.