Book Review: 2011 Short Listed: Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie

Jamrachs_MenagerieRating: 2
Jamrach’s Menagerie
A Novel by Carol Birch
2011 / 295 Pages

The Setup: A thrilling and powerful novel about a young boy lured to sea by the promise of adventure and reward, with echoes of Great Expectations, Moby-Dick, and The Voyage of the Narwhal.

Jamrach’s Menagerietells the story of a nineteenth-century street urchin named Jaffy Brown. Following an incident with an escaped tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr. Charles Jamrach, the famed importer of exotic animals, alongside Tim, a good but sometimes spitefully competitive boy. Thus begins a long, close friendship fraught with ambiguity and rivalry.

Mr. Jamrach recruits the two boys to capture a fabled dragon during the course of a three-year whaling expedi­tion. Onboard, Jaffy and Tim enjoy the rough brotherhood of sailors and the brutal art of whale hunting. They even succeed in catching the reptilian beast.

But when the ship’s whaling venture falls short of expecta­tions, the crew begins to regard the dragon—seething with feral power in its cage—as bad luck, a feeling that is cruelly reinforced when a violent storm sinks the ship.

Drifting across an increasingly hallucinatory ocean, the sur­vivors, including Jaffy and Tim, are forced to confront their own place in the animal kingdom. Masterfully told, wildly atmospheric, and thundering with tension, Jamrach’s Mena­gerie is a truly haunting novel about friendship, sacrifice, and survival. (from the hardcover edition)

This review originally appeared on Opinionless on 10/03/2011

Jamrach’s Menagerie is a piece of historical fiction that while well written is neither entertaining nor interesting. Split into three distinct sections, the novel is narrated by one Jaffy Brown as he recounts his early childhood days up through his adult years.

What’s more interesting than the novel itself, which for a historical piece manages to get even the smallest details wrong (hello, people did not drop the ‘f’ bomb left and right in 1857 England) is the factual existence of Mr. Charles Jamrach, a man who while present in the novel, is barely involved in the overall story. So instead of focusing solely on how the story bored me to tears, I think I’ll instead take this opportunity to explore the facts behind the fiction.

The key event that happens early on in the novel is a situation in which young Jaffy Brown finds himself face to face with an escaped tiger. Believe it or not, this is based on fact:

One incident made Jamrach a celebrity. In October 1857, a cargo of animals arrived, among which was a Bengal tigress. She had just endured a stormy sea voyage, her cage subjected to frequent wettings by the waves. She was no doubt cold, stiff, hungry and traumatized. While Jamrach was otherwise engaged, she broke through the soaked wood and escaped into the street. One small boy, John Wade, approached the tiger, patting her. Stunned by a swipe from her paw he was carried off down a side street. Jamrach grabbed hold of her, attempting to throttle her but she continued to run away carrying John with her. Eventually, someone handed Jamrach a crowbar with which he struck her on the nose and she released the child. Jamrach tried to tie her up with ropes, but cowed, confused and frightened, the poor beast returned of her own volition to the cage, the only place offering her any refuge. Her notoriety was such that a Mr. Edmonds from Birmingham bought her for £200 to display in his Wombwell’s Menagerie. Jamrach was prosecuted by John Wade’s parents and fined £300. [Source: Charles Jamrach – 19thc Importer of Wild Animals]

In the novel of course, Jaffy Brown’s mother doesn’t sue poor Mr. Jamrach. Instead, he’s able to smooth things over with a little money and the offer of a job for young Jaffy at his wild animal emporium. It’s here that the boy meets his lifelong friend, and the other character that is central to the novel, Tim.

While Tim treats Jaffy like dirt, there’s little doubt that they’re best friends. It’s this relationship that is almost exclusively explored in tediously mind numbing detail throughout the entire novel. Regardless of the ups and downs they encounter, neither is ever willing to separate themself from the other in hopes of exploring the possibility of a different existence. Instead, they stick together until the very end, grating on each other’s nerves as well as those of the reader. Wherever Tim goes, Jaffy is sure to follow.

Tim also has a sister named Ishbel that Jaffy finds himself wholly enamored with from a young age. Throughout the course of the novel she’s presented as a bit of a wild spirit who may or not have reciprocal feelings for the narrator. She’s supposed to serve as the story’s love interest, but her lack of any semblance of active involvement in the story being told leaves her definition as a character of interest murky at best.

What’s really surprising is that for a novel bearing his name, the character of Charles Jamrach barely appears in the story at all. Those expecting tales of his adventures as the world’s leading breeder, importer, and exporter of wild animals best look elsewhere because this is most certainly not that book.


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