Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach's menagerie

First Published: 2011 by Canongate Books
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “We’d taken cover but I swear it looked at me. Straight at me with a demon bright red grin. Gave me the chills. There are worlds between the animals of Jamrach’s and the animals of the wild, worlds between a croc in an enclosure and a dragon free. I’d been nearer to wild animals thousands of times, but here there were no barriers.”

How many pleasure-seekers over the years have been lured to a circus, exotic animal park or sideshow anticipating the escapist world of wonders and enchantment promised on its billboard, only to be faced with a reality that is altogether sadder and more squalid: unhappy animals cramped in dirty cages or “miracles” that are barely more than mundane? Birch’s Orange Prize longlisted novel not only explores – brilliantly – this kind of demystifying experience, but arguably, it also provides one.

Jamrach’s Menagerie begins in the sewers of Victorian London. Jaffy Brown, aged eight, is a mudlark with little to look forward to except years of poverty until a chance encounter with a tiger propels him into the world of Mr Jamrach, a collector and dealer of exotic animals. In Jamrach’s employ, Jaffy revels in the proximity of creatures large and small, as well as the tempestuous company of new friends, Tim and Ishbel. But the growing Jaffy’s horizons are to expand again when reports of dragon sightings in the East Indies tempt him to sign on to a whaling ship in the hope of capturing one of these mysterious beasts. It is a mission fraught with more horror than young Jaffy expects, and perhaps many of his readers too.

Never judge a book by its cover, they say. But with its imagery of stylised swirling seas, shooting star-studded skyscapes and the prominently placed critical plaudit “Magical,” those who do could surely be forgiven for expecting Jamrach’s Menagerie to some kind of fantastical adventure tale, full of the rousing romance of the high seas.  Those readers will be disappointed. Birch’s novel is an altogether more grisly prospect than its blurb implies, written in the grand tradition of nautical survival horror that recalls both Moby Dick and particularly Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. Many of the lower-scoring Amazon reviews of this novel express frustration and disappointment that this was not the sort of tale they had been led to expect. Long term followers of this blog, however, will not be surprised to hear that this kind of grisly sea story was right up my street.

Birch’s writing is deeply evocative and her land-bound chapters particularly paint lower-class London life with almost Dickensian vividness. As an animal lover I found the descriptions of Jamrach’s shop both engaging and repellent. Jaffy himself struggles to reconcile his fairy-tale like joy at being able to walk amongst bears, camels, tigers and toucans with the more bitter realities of his new job: the very real danger that many of the animals represent, their cramped captivity and the stench of their excrement. When he boards the Lysander in search of dragons it is Jaffy himself who will experience captivity: like the animals brought to Jamrach’s shop, Birch’s plucky protagonist is carried far from his home, in claustrophobic confines and at the mercy of greater forces he does not understand. As is typical of this particularly episodic genre, the pace moves quickly and while this speed is perhaps a blessing that spares the reader some of the trauma of the harrowing penultimate section, I felt that the chapters dealing with the quest for the dragon were over far too quickly and could easily have been expanded.

Perhaps there is a case for arguing that Jamrach’s Menagerie is to some degree mis-marketed. I would certainly agree that the fascinating character of Jamrach himself – who is apparently based on a real historical figure – could have featured a lot more prominently in the narrative than he does. But while in some ways I would liked to have seen more of both Jamrach and the dragon, ultimately this seems to be a book about the clash between the exotic wonder of expectation and the more squalid practicalities of dangerous reality – and in that respect the mirroring between Birch’s tone and her theme is highly effective. Jamrach and his shop may be quickly abandoned as the action sets sail, but the real menagerie here is the ship-bound one, Jaffy and his crewmates –  a diverse assortment of misfits who are as memorable, as unpredictable and ultimately as dangerous as any exotic predator.

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