Jamrach's Menagerie: A Novel

by Carol Birch

Hardcover, 2011

Call number




Doubleday (2011), Edition: First Edition, 304 pages


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.

Media reviews

In Jaffy, Birch has captured a boyish wonder at nature, a fascination with animals that any kid who’s ever caught a snake in the woods will be familiar with. As phantasmagoric as the mood of this novel gets, there is nothing in it that steps outside the bounds of reality, for it knows the real world is fantastic enough.
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One of the magical qualities of Birch’s story is that it gives that sense of Dickensian sprawl and scope even though it’s spun in fewer than 300 pages.We smell “the gorgeous stench” of England’s burgeoning capital in the mid-19th century and see its noisy alleys stretching out in every direction.
Seen in the round, Jamrach's Menagerie is a terrific example of the virtues of finding a style and sticking to it: as good as anything Peter Carey has done in this line and, in certain exalted moments, even better.
When we are eventually returned to Wapping, minus a few fellow-travellers, Birch has spun us a captivating yarn of high seas and even higher drama. But she has also managed to leave us understanding why some of the sailors who did make it back to the comparative safety of land are, despite their ordeals, so quick to set sail again.

User reviews

LibraryThing member LizzieD
EEEEEeeeeew. Jamrach's Menagerie is not anybody's idea of a typical Orange Prize nominee. Although the writing is lovely, rhythmic and arresting, everything but roughly the first 60 and the last 40 pages reads like horror fiction.
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.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
Wow, this one ended up being quite a page-turner (and I'm not one generally fond of ship adventure stories). Young Jaf Brown, the narrator, comes across a tiger in the streets of Victorian London, but his first instinct is not to flee but to reach out and rub its nose. In an instant, he finds himself swooning in the tiger's jaws. So begins Jaf's first claim to local fame, as the boy who was in the tiger's mouth. Jaf is rescued by Mr. Jamrach, who makes a living by importing exotic birds and animals. Noting Jaf's affinity for animals, he hires the boy as a cage cleaner, a job which eventually leads to his participation in a three-year voyage to the South Seas in search of a dragon.

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.
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LibraryThing member katiekrug
”He wanted a story. A thing of horror. I have a story, a terrible one. But I’ll tell no tales. He doesn’t understand at all: it’s not that kind of a story, not horror but grief I have to deal with.” (page 276)

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)
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LibraryThing member writestuff
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.
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LibraryThing member Electablue
I have been wanting to read a book by Carol Birch for a long time and was excited when I learned she would have her newest book released in the United States.

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.
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LibraryThing member kidzdoc
This novel takes place in the middle of the 19th century, and is narrated by Jaffy Brown, who is born to a struggling single mother in the Bermondsey section of London. He experiences a second birth eight years later, as he is rescued from the jaws of a tiger he has decided to pet on the nose by its owner, Charles Jamrach, a big hearted exotic animal collector and breeder. He employs Jaffy, and introduces him to Tim Linver, an older boy who also works for Jamrach, who befriends, and torments, the young lad.

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.
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LibraryThing member Laura400
Named to the longlist for the 2011 Man Booker, Jamrach's Menagerie is a rollicking adventure story and coming-of-age tale, but it is also a meditation on mankind's relationship to the animal world, and an exploration of how far men must go to survive, and the toll that each of those takes.

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.
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LibraryThing member phollando
Set in 1857 Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of Jaffy, a poor but happy child who wanders the streets of the East End of London, through the mire and the open sewers bare footed without the least concern. When one day he encounters a tiger newly escaped from its captivity he brazenly walks up to pet its nose only to end up in the tiger's mouth. His rescue comes in the form of the eponymous Jamrach, an exotic animal dealer who leaps atop the creature and forces its jaws apart. Jamrach's menagerie is a place of wonder filled with Tasmanian devils, all kinds of birds and primates and Jaffy takes a job there where he encounters Jamrach's assistant Tim Linver and Dan Rymer, the salty sea dog/animal tracker responsible for collecting some of Jamrach's more exotic products.

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.
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LibraryThing member TomKitten
I was quite pleased when I learned I'd be getting Jamrach's Menagerie as an ER book. Comparisons to Great Expectations and Moby Dick and the fact that it was longlisted for this year's Orange Prize gave me great expectations of my own.
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.
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LibraryThing member Brennagh
Before I read this terrific novel, I was unfamiliar with the author and the two historical incidents that provide the backdrop for the novel’s narrative—the sinking of the Essex whaling ship in 1820 and the life of Charles Jamrach, a famed importer of exotic animals during Victorian times. This is the first of Carol Birch’s books being published in the United States. I hope it is very successful so that her backlist of highly regarded novels follow suit and become easily accessible to American readers.
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.
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LibraryThing member nmele
Carol Birch held my interest throughout this story of a boy who becomes a man through caring for animals, hunting whales, trapping a Komodo dragon and then shipwreck and survival. Quite a lot of action in just under 300 pages, and told quite well, with allusions to Dickens and Melville and Darwin and Wallace among others. A striking book, but at the end I found myself somehow dissatisfied: Is that all there is? Maybe Birch's skill, settings and characters encouraged too great expectations about where she was leading me.… (more)
LibraryThing member lisally
Jaffy Brown is living a life of squalor on the streets of nineteenth century London, when a close a close encounter with a tiger changes his life forever. The tiger belongs to Mr. Jamrach, an exotic animal trader, who offers young Jaffy a job caring with his animals. It is at jamrach’s that Jaffy meets his rival and best friend, Tim Linver.

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.
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LibraryThing member sarahzilkastarke
I can sum this book up simply. It all goes downhill once you start eating humans after being lost at sea.
LibraryThing member andrewreads
Jamrach's Menagerie is a lovely story with personable characters and a rapidly moving plot. It is well written and feels authentically Victorian; in particular, Birch's descriptions of the tastes and smells that her characters encounter are extremely vivid, making it easy to share in the squalor experienced by members of the lower class in London. Although this book fails to transcend its genre and become much more than a swashbuckling tale of seafaring adventure, it was still very enjoyable to read. This book was good, but not great.… (more)
LibraryThing member cornerhouse
I made the mistake of reading the bulk of this novel during a bout of insomnia, but it's not a book that lulls you to sleep. The story is at turns charming and horrific, but the writing runs at a high calibre throughout. And even though the story itself falls pretty squarely within the castaway bildungsroman, it still remains relatively fresh despite the fact that one knows how it will end, more or less. Like a lot of other narratives that follow a classic story-line, it's how you get there. And I can say that if nothing else, it got me through the night, though not back to sleep.… (more)
LibraryThing member SandSing7
The writing was lovely, but it wasn't a book that fit my personal tastes and preferences. That being said, it is one of those books that I would recommend to someone with slightly different reading preferences. Perhaps someone who appreciates Dickens more than I.
LibraryThing member ill_ame
A warning to prospective readers: this book is not for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached. It contains quite a few scenes of brutality, including whaling, hunting, and cannibalism.

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.
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LibraryThing member sarahbest
I received this book a few weeks before moving to a new home: great timing to receive a colorful tale that is transports you away to fantastic places: Victorian dance halls and carnivals, an emporium of exotic animals, and on a long sea voyage. The novel tells the story of Jaffy Brown, an affable Victorian urchin who, through an odd series of events, finds himself working for a man named Jamrach who makes a living selling tigers, elephants and cockatoos to people with "more money than sense", then heading off on a whaling voyage, where he learn what a variable mistress the sea can be and where he will ultimately become a man. This novel, which was written in 2011 in the vernacular of nineteenth century novels, and which embraces adventure and romance so typical of books published serially at that time, is deeply romantic in that it embraces things that are both slighty seedy and terribly desireable, like the slang and yearnful songs of sailors, the slightly too bright makeup of a showgirl, and the rare raspberry pastry that sets Jaffy off on his life's adventure.… (more)
LibraryThing member Spoerk
At first I thought it would be like Life of Pi (which I didn't like at all, mind you.) and I thought I was going to be disappointed.

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!.
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LibraryThing member ashmolean1
I love historical novels and this one did not disappoint. Set in Victorian London, we see all aspects of 19th century life through the eyes of a young boy growing up in the dirty streets of the East End who takes to the seas in a whaling ship in search of adventure. Jaffy Brown is employed by Mr. Jamrach to go and find a dragon. Jaffy grows to love the South Seas and to experience what it was like to catch a whale for blubber and oil first hand. But will he make it home to see his mother again or will disaster strike? Carol Birch keeps the reader enthralled in this thrilling novel shortlisted for the Orange Prized for fiction 2011.… (more)
LibraryThing member bridgetmarkwood
I hardly know what to say as this is not an average book. I thought it would fall somewhere between Old Man and the Sea and Lord of the Flies. I suppose to some extent, it did. I am amazed at what I felt while reading the book. The author has this uncanny ability, through language, pace, tone, etc. to make you feel what the characters are going through, in your very gut.

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 .
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LibraryThing member DoskoiPanda
From out of a tiger's jaws to chase a dragon through bloody seas

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.
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LibraryThing member knomad
Densely populated with Dickensian detail this is a dark adventure about a boy's horrific coming of age that combines the sea faring tale of ocean adventure with search for and discovery of monsters within and without.
LibraryThing member orangewords
I just didn't really get into this book. It had its moments, and was sometimes interesting, but ultimately I never really became invested in the characters or the plot. I know that sounds really absurd, considering the fact that this novel is about a sea-farin' adventure, but I just didn't care for it. I found it stilted.
LibraryThing member rutabega
A compelling and interesting adventure story, which doesn't skimp on the squalid or sublime parts of the main character's experiences. This story did not quite go the way I expected it to, and I think that is one of its greatest strengths. Jamrach's Menagerie combines multiple story-telling tropes and genres into a lovely whole.… (more)




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