Jamrach’s Menagerie weaves a story quite unlike anything I’ve ever read. Set in mid-1850s, the book evokes Dickens-esque images of the working class people struggling to survive in the filthy, seedy areas of London. Jaffy Brown is eight years old when he beholds a sight that will capture his imagination for years to come: a beautiful white tiger, one of the many imported exotic animals belonging to Charles Jamrach’s menagerie.
Eager to be closer to these wondrous creatures, Jaffy begs Jamrach for a job. Jamrach hires him and places him under the tutelage of Tim, who is about Jaffy’s age but has been working for Mr. Jamrach for a long time. The two develop a love-hate competitive relationship, but become like brothers. Rounding out their trio is Tim’s strong-willed twin sister, whom Jaffy falls in love with.
Year later, when the boys are teenagers, they do what many boys their age do: become men by traveling the world as whalers on a ship. The opportunity arises when Jamrach is offered a lot of money to capture a “dragon” that has been spotted in some far-off exotic locale. The trip will take three years, and the boys will be on board to care for the dragon and make sure it returns safely to Mr. Jamrach. Though the boys grow up and experience wonders they could never have imagined while living in London, things take a turn for the worse when their ship sinks and the handful survivors are left stranded on life boats in the middle of the ocean.
I initially heard of this book when it was longlisted–and later shortlisted–for the 2011 Booker Prize. In the months following the Booker announcement, I kept seeing the book mentioned all over the place (and it didn’t hurt that the book has a gorgeous, eye-catching cover). But somehow, in all these articles and reviews of the book, I seemed to miss all mentions of a key part of the plot. I won’t mention it here in case any of you want to be extra-surprised (and extra-disturbed)–though you can easily find the info in other reviews–but I’m amazed that I went into this book not having any idea of what was going to happen. It takes a lot to faze me, but this book managed it over and over.
What I will say is that the book positively blew me away in terms of the prose, especially in terms of sensory language. Birch’s ability to describe filth and stench and greasiness is astonishing; you feel like you’re actually there coated in whale blubber and salt water, or walking barefoot through the grimy streets of London while inhaling its putrid smells (quite a feat for me, as I don’t even have a sense of smell). At times she was descriptive almost to a fault, but the events of the book saved it from getting too dragged down for me.
Jamrach’s Menagerie is definitely not a book for people who get queasy easily. To say it’s a lot darker than I imagined it would be is an understatement–I was completely unprepared for the moral dilemmas and the gore, and I’d pictured a much lighter book. It was out of my comfort zone in so many ways: I tend to stay away from books about whalers and whaling–mariners in general, for that matter–at all costs (though I can now say I know what a fo’c’s’le is). I’m not into Dickens- or Moby Dick-inspired literature, and certainly not into dragon-capturing ocean adventures. So I can’t exactly say I enjoyed the book per se, but I’m very glad to have read it and been introduced to Carol Birch’s powerful writing.
Jamrach’s Menagerie was released on June 14, 2011 by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House.