Following an incident with an escaped tiger, nineteenth-century London street urchin Jaffy Brown goes to work for Mr. Charles Jamrach, the famed importer of exotic animals, alongside Tim, a good but sometimes spitefully competitive boy. Mr. Jamrach recruits the two boys to capture a fabled dragon during the course of a three-year whaling expedition to the Dutch East Indies. They 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.
Briefly, Jaffy Brown, a Victorian slum child meets an escaped (but recently fed) tiger in the streets of London and walks up to stroke its nose. Tiger and Jaffy are recovered by Jamrach, an importer of exotic animals who hires Jaf as his yard boy. There Jaffy meets Tim Linver and his sister Ishbel, who become his best friends. As teens Jaffy and Tim go on a three-year voyage with Dan Rymer, the exotic animal hunter, to bring back a dragon (which we recognize as a Komodo Dragon) for a collector.
At this point the story picks up and becomes a thing not for the squeamish. Birch's descriptions of a whale hunt and its aftermath are sickening. The hunt for the dragon and its capture are even more so if that's possible. (A notable feature of the Komodo is apparently its slimy drool.) When the ship goes down in a waterspout and 12 men survive in two of the whaling boats, the descriptions become well-nigh unbearable. Here is one mild passage to whet your appetite or warn you away: "One day I woke and my tongue was out of my mouth. It had turned into a creature I did not know, lazy and fat, swelling and oozing as it thrust its way out into the light through the slack hole of my mouth. My own tongue made me retch. This brought tears to my eyes, which I gratefully drank."
I am glad to have read this to satisfy my curiosity. Otherwise, given the predictability of the climax, I could just as well have let it go unopened. We are invited to look into the depths of the human creature in extreme circumstances, but I'm not sure that I learned about anything except the valiant will to survive and something about the nature of forgiveness. My thanks, though, to Early Reviewers for giving me the opportunity to get it out of my system.
At this point, the novel takes flight, and it won't set the reader back down until the final page. The voyage begins as an adventure, turns into a harrowing ordeal, and ends on a note that is oddly both melancholy and hopeful. Birch's descriptive language brings the feelings--both physical and emotional--of her protagonist to life for the reader. Let me warn that this is not a book for the squeamish: events both disgusting and horrendous are drawn in minute detail. But if you can handle it, reading Jamrach's Menagerie is a fascinating, unforgettable experience.
I very much enjoyed this book, though I am not entirely sure what to make of it. As an homage to 18th century adventure tales? A tip of the hat to 19th century coming of age novels? A reinvention of contemporary metaphorical stories urging us to reconsider our relationship to the natural world? Ultimately, I saw some of all of these (and more) in [Jamrach’s Menagerie], a novel which inspires a host of adjectives – fantastical, disturbing, hallucinogenic, humorous, brutal, life-affirming – but which, to me, suffered a bit from over-ambition on the part of the author.
Carol Birch writes wonderfully evocative descriptions of everything from places to emotions to characters. I flagged many fascinating and beautiful passages. I loved the basic plot of the story – London urchin is taken under the wing of an exotic animal importer, makes friends with another young boy, they both eventually set sail on a whaling ship, capture a dragon, and then are set adrift on the unforgiving ocean after their ship sinks. I also loved young Jaffy Brown’s narrative voice (”I loved my ma. To me, she would ever and always be a warm armpit in the night.”) Through that voice, we see his development from an impish child to a haunted man, and it is a well done transformation. There is a lot going on in the book and parts of it are by turns moving, horrifying, and funny. My only complaint is that the point of the story, the theme of the book, was muddied to me by the inclusion of SO MUCH. I admire Birch’s ambition but wish she had been a bit more focused.
A few passages I noted:
”I put my head back and watched the sky along with him. It was black and very starry. Starry out there is not like in London. There, starry is an observable impossibility, and looking up is a gaze into infinity.” (page 248)
”Home. Hope Ma’s all right. She should be, Charley Grant’s a good sort. Home, Ma, Ishbel, never get back, never go home, never again. A burning place in my chest. Something to hold against the terror, a blanket. I’m alive, burning brightly with a head full of everything that ever was, our Bermondsey home, the Highway, the tiger, the birds, the smell of lemon sherbet.” (page 235)
”Long as I live I’ll never be wise. Never understand why it happened as it happened, never understand where they’ve gone, all those faces I see clear in the darkness. There’s no way out of this, it’s stark: live or die. Every given moment a bubble that bursts. Step on, from one to the next, ever onwards, a rainbow of stepping stones, each bursting softly as your foot touches and passes on. Till one step finds only empty air. Till that step, live.” (page 279)
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.
I enjoyed this book immensely and found it hard to put down. It read as if the main character, Jaffy Brown, was actually telling his story and I was with him in the streets of Wapping and Radcliffe Highway, and out on on the open seas hunting whales. The reason for 4, rather than 5 stars is because the second section of the book was too realistic and hard to read for me.
This reminds me of Dickensian tale, with touches of Life of Pi.
Jaffy and Tim become young men, and both are lured away by the call of the sea, as opportunities for each of them on land are quite limited. They join the crew of a whaling ship, whose wealthy owner charges them with an even greater task: to bring back a live dragon from an island in the South Pacific, which has been described by several travelers but never captured. However, a great tragedy befalls the crew, and the journey becomes a long and tortuous struggle against starvation, hopelessness, destiny and death, which is described in detail throughout the latter half of the book.
Jamrach's Menagerie was apparently based upon a true story. It was an interesting story, but only moderately so. The supporting characters were thinly portrayed, as were the description of life aboard a whaling ship. The narration during and after the shipwreck was the strongest part of the novel, but it was often gruesome and went on far too long. This book is a curious selection for this year's Booker Prize longlist, and I would be very surprised, and disappointed, if it makes the shortlist.
The novel seems to be based partly in historical events or personages -- like Jamrach. But it is a richly imagined work that manages to be both realistic and sometimes dreamlike. And while the life of the narrator Jaffy Brown might bring to mind Dickens, Melville or Patrick O'Brian, he also stands on his own as a terrific character.
Much happens in this novel, as Jaffy grows from an impoverished boy who encounters a tiger on a London street, to a youth who works at Jamrach's shop, to a teen who ships out on a whaling boat to hunt a mysterious dragon, to a survivor of shipwreck who is adrift with his fellows for 65 days. For most of his journey he is accompanied by his friend and rival, a boy a little older and a lot more sure of himself named Tim Linver, whose twin sister Jaffy loves. There is a full cast of characters, from family members and shipmates to some of the captured animals, all of whom are memorably sketched.
As Jaffy walks, then sails, through his early years, the novel explores mankind's twinned exploitation of, and attraction to, animals, from the whales slaughtered for their skin, oil and bones, to the exotic lizard, tiger or wombat captured to stock London collections, and even to the songbirds and dogs kept as pets. Man's essential animal nature moves front and center as the hunters stalk their dragon, only to see the whaling ship run into bad luck before finally encountering the storm that leads to shipwreck and the struggle to survive. In a story with so much going on, the author's sure hand keeps everything moving with assurance and energy. This is a very impressive book, and also a very gripping read.
When one day a Mr Fledge comes in and asks that he be supplied a dragon (most likely a Komodo Dragon) Jaffy, Tim and Dan join the crew of one of Mr Fledge's whale boats and set out towards the South Seas in pursuit of their quarry. What follows is a somewhat harrowing tale of torture, starvation and whole lot of pain as things go from terrible to worse in a story partly inspired by the true tale of the Essex (a story which also partly inspired another infamous book of whaling ships, Moby Dick).
It is an intentionally difficult book to read as the author tries to put you into the mindset of the protagonists as they go through some pretty extreme torment and the result is that some chapters go by a great deal slower than the rest (reading a chapter about the doldrums is liable to send one into them oneself). It is a very evocative book and as Jaffy, Tim and Dan suffer, I could feel their pain.
The book is far from perfect. Some of the characters aren't developed well enough such as Skip whose madness is just accepted but never questioned or explained, or Tim who becomes incredibly two-dimensioned once they set foot aboard the whaling ship. Also the ending is a little too rose-coloured as things at last come together in an ending Disney would be proud of. However, these are comparatively minor complaints and I wouldn't be surprised to see this making the Booker Prize shortlist.
Our story, briefly: Jaffy Brown is a London lad who works for a dealer in exotic animals. The boy seems to have a way with even the most ferocious of beasts and, consequently, is chosen, along with his sometimes friend, sometimes rival, Tim, to go on a voyage in search of a dragon. They ship out on a whaler, eventually find the dragon, then lose the dragon in a storm that also destroys their ship. Jaffy eventually makes it back home but it's the journey, not the arrival, that marks him for the rest of his life.
I actually ended up liking Jamrach's Menagerie quite a lot.I was able to accept the more horrific elments of the tale as necessary to the story being told, stomach churning as they may have been. Jaffy Brown is an engaging narrator and his story is both fantastic and completely believable. Birch gilds her considerable period detail with just enough of the haze of mysticism to keep the reader slightly off balance in the best sort of way. When Jaffy does finally make it back home again, he finds his way back into the world in a way that feels so right that it makes one glad to have gone on the journey with him, in spite of all the horrors. The final chapters are tender and luminous.
Birch uses the two historical events to tell the story of Jaffy Brown, who is born to dire poverty. Jaffy’s life changes at the age of eight when he is clutched from the jaws of a tiger while walking down Ratcliffe Highway. The tiger is owned by Jamrach who hires Jaffy to work at the menagerie. There he meets the slightly older Tim who is to become his best friend. Tim’s twin sister becomes Jaffy’s lifelong love. Jamrach insists that both boys attend some school. When the boys are in their mid teen, Tim is recruited to accompany Dan Rymer, an adventurer who captures animals for Jamrach, in his search for an elusive sea dragon desired by a rich collector. Jaffy decides to sign up for the ship and they embark on a three-year whaling expedition.
Birch employs a commanding use of voice by using young Jaffy to tell the story from his hardscrabble beginnings to his amazing story of survival at sea. The reader is plunged into Dickensian London with its smells and dirt. Birch captures the flavor of life on a ship followed by the harrowing tale of the sailors in the whaling boats trying to survive in a remarkable fashion. The novel demonstrates Birch’s ability to write lyrically while maintaining a strong narrative drive. This is a great read and might particularly appeal to readers who liked Beryl Bainbridge’s the Birthday Boys or Andrea Barrett’s the Voyage of the Narwhal.
When an associate of Jamrach’s plans a voyage to capture an exotic “dragon,” Jaffy jumps at the opportunity. Although enchanted at first with life on board a whaling ship, Jaffy finds himself homesick even before the crew reaches the island of the dragon. When the ship encounters a disaster, Jaffy, Tim, and their shipmates must face a horrifying fight to survive on the open ocean.
Jamrachs’ Menagerie can be considered a story in multiple parts. The first part of the novel deals with Jaffy’s childhood in London, while the second part is an adventure story aboard the whaling ship. The third part of the novel is an often horrific and gruesome tale of survival at sea.
It took a little while to get used to Jaffy’s voice at the beginning. The writing is partly stream-of-consciousness, which is really effective in the later parts of the novel. Jaffy’s hunger and mindset while adrift comes across very strongly through the text. Some of Jaffy’s shipmates are underdeveloped anf hard to keep track of, and some of the survival scenes can be rather gruesome. However, Jamrach’s Menagerie is very well written and is overall an excellent read.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Written in a reminiscent, conversational style, this book kept me turning pages right until the end. It's a fascinating story of adventure, cruelty, hope, and what it means to be alive and human. I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of the plot, but Birch's detailed and imaginative descriptions helped me to clearly picture everything that happened.
Overall, this novel is dark and painful, but well-written. It made for a great read.
But it wasn't like that book, and I wasn't disappointed. In fact this book was quite hard to resist.
There are some parts that are down right gruesome that I did kinda have to read quickly. (shipwreck, months at sea with nothing to eat but... well. I won't spoil it for you.)
Although, I dislike the title. It doesn't seem to fit the book at all seeing how Jachrach's menagerie was only really the catalyst and not the focus of the story. However, I can't think of a better one.
This is a book that I will be recommending!.
At the beginning, I loved the language and the set up for the novel. Then, I all at once began to feel like this was starting drag a little, like I wanted the book to hurry up and finish. No such luck. The second part of the book reeaallly takes you on an uncomfortable journey that you feel will never end. It almost made my skin crawl, my gut wretch and my eyes burn... but I kept reading. I couldn't leave it. And on and on... my breathing even got more labored and in pace with the rhythm of an ocean, when I read the second part of the book.
Then came the third part and I knew I was reading what should absolutely become a classic for so many reasons. The third part really did bring it to the place it needed to go. As soon as I finished the book, I took several deep breaths and knew for years to come, to those who were up for this sort of intensity, I would be recommending this book .
My cousin made me read this.
Now I realise that most of you don't know my cousin, but you may safely place your trust in my veracity when I say that it's often that she likes a book, but rare that she presses one on me. Jamrach's Menagerie was one such that she was positively eager to have me read. And being the intrepid, resourceful reader that I am, I tracked down an advanced reading copy to read via a swapping site. (My cousin, it should be noted, lives in a country where the book is already in print; I don't think she knew at the time she was urging me to read it that it wouldn't be available in the US until June 2011, but there you have it. I should also note that this was not given to me by the publisher, but I feel that to not review the book would be remiss, as I don't know that it was reviewed by the giver. But enough of that, and on to the book itself!)
Jamrach's Menagerie is, essentially, a boy's adventure story with the brutal realities of late 19th century seafaring. And it is more than that, as it delves into the essence of the survival of humanity struggling under impossible conditions, guilt, friendship and loss. The ARC jacket states a comparison to Dickens, Melville and Barrett; I'd add Stevenson in to the mix - his humour in describing people and their surroundings is closer to the voice of the narrator of the story. The story begins with Jaffy Brown, an urchin of dubious paternal parentage, who lives with his mother first in Bermondsey, then they move further in to Ratcliffe Highway, and the 8 year old Jaffy's life is touched by the hand of fate when he meets a tiger in the street, and strokes it's nose. Afterwards, he goes to work for Mr Jamrach, an importer of exotic animals, discovering a talent for handling animals and befriending (and becoming rivals with) Tim Linver, another boy handling Mr Jamrach's animals. Jaffy also befriends Tim's twin sister, Ishbel, competing for her interest and affections with her jealous twin. Before long, Tim is called to an adventure on the seas, hunting a dragon (which may or may not exist) for a wealthy client, and Jaffy, wanting in on both adventure and glory, begs to go with them. Under the eye of Dan Rymer, a procurer of animals working with Mr Jamrach, they set out on a whaling vessel for the far east, learning to crew and to whale as they head to the islands where the dragons are rumoured to live. The resulting pursuit and journey prove to be life-changing in every respect.
The opening description of life in Bermondsey is fascinating -mudlarking on the banks of the Thames for pennies, the rush of the river beneath their lodgings, the gut wrenching hunger and the pervasive reek of excrement all make for a very vivid world view, which is carried throughout the novel. Unlike Dickens, there is no social message coupled with overt sentimentality/pathos to the descriptions; Carol Birch's agenda is Jaffy's story. There are truly horrible things that occur, particularly in the second part of the book, and Birch does not flinch from describing them, but neither does she linger unnecessarily on them or hammer them home repeatedly - the images conjured are very much a part of the story and not gratuitous. There are threads of humour even in the worst moments, touches of madness, jealousy, bravery and sickening horror, but there is also love. The third part of the novel is recovery and redemption, Jaffy looking to find his way in the world after the adventure, and brings appropriate closure to this excellent novel.
I highly recommend Jamrach's Menagerie - It will put you through the wringer, but that is a hazard of a story well told.