Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Review by Jamie Mollart

The Victorian era is a rich vein for novelists to plunder and never more so than now. Maybe something to do with the waning of our political power as a world voice, maybe because it was a period of great discoveries, but I think it is likely to be because it was a time when British Imperial power straddled the globe, yet there were still pockets of the world that were unknown and held the promise of adventure. Whatever the reason it is irrefutable that it’s time which writers come back to time and time again.

The latest book that fits into this time period is Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch. I’m going to state right up front that I knew from the first page that I would love this book. The image of a boy meeting an escaped tiger and, not knowing what it was, reaching up to stroke its nose is the powerful and enchanting introduction to a story that encompasses the world, but also addresses the intimate relationships between friends and families.

Jaffy Brown is eight when he has his encounter with a tiger (this like many aspects of the book is based on real life events, in this instance immortalised in a statue in Waping, London), but it sets him on a path that will see him traveling the oceans in search of a mythical dragon. The tiger has escaped from the eponymous Jamrach’s collection of exotic animals and it is Jamrach who plucks Jafffy from the creature’s jaws. Jamrach himself was also a historical figure, supplying imported animals to the rich and famous in 1800’s London.

Jaffy, used to the seedy underbelly of London is seduced by the brightly coloured birds, the grumpy elephants and the empathetic apes that he is introduced to and begins to work in Jamrach’s menagerie. Here he meets twins Tim and Ishbel, Tim becomes his best friend and Ishbel his only (mostly unrequited) love. They grow up together in the slums of London, the exotic animals representing an exciting world away from all the squalor.

As they reach early adulthood the opportunity arises for Tim and Jaffy to take part in a journey to the other side in the world in search of a dragon (presumably the Komodo Dragon) for a private collector. The dragon is only rumour and speculation at this stage, tales told passed around the seafaring folk, tales of a man who met a man, who met a man who once saw it. Both Tim and Jaffy are unable to resist, take up the offer and set sail into the unknown on an old whaling vessel.

At first they revel in the new experiences, but once they reach their destination a curse seems to descend on the ship and they are faced with horrible decisions that will scar Jaffy for life. I don’t want to go too far into what happens once they find the dragon as it will spoil much of the reading experience, but the events that befall the crew of the whaling boat are based on the historical fate of a real life ship called the Essex, and illustrate how far human beings are willing to go in order to survive.

On face value this is an exciting, extremely well crafted adventure story, and it is possible to read it entirely on this level, however there is so much more at work under the surface. Birch skilfully examines the nature of friendship, particularly the bond between close male friends. The way in which she handles the complexities of Jaffy and Tim’s relationship has a real authenticity to it. She also looks at the natural human desire to look towards the horizon and search for something bigger than themselves. The way in which we are coded on a deep level to covet the unknown is a recurring theme; in the search for the creature, in Jaffy’s love for Ishbel and the lure of the open sea.

Birch’s use of descriptive language is superb. It effortlessly transports you to the London of 1857, draws in great detail the colourful animals in the menagerie, takes you with Jaffy and Tim to strange lands and when things start to go wrong it draws you in and doesn’t let go until the last page.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is a magical book and the way in which Birch takes pieces of history and stitches them together into a compelling and moving narrative is close to inspired.

****

Jamie Mollart is a writer based in Leicester. His work has been published in a number of magazines and newspapers.

He is actively involved in Litopia, the web’s oldest forum for writers. As well as appearing on the podcast he manages the award winning Twitter feed, which now has 18,000 follows and he is part of the editorial team for the Litopia ezine, MUSE.

He is currently finishing his second novel, the first is on the submission roller coaster. The first started out as Literary Fiction and ended up as a thriller, who knows what the second one will end up as?

In the real world he is an Associate Director of a well respected advertising agency and is alleged to know a fair bit about Social Media.

His website is www.jamiemollart.co.uk and you can follow Litopia’s Twitter atwww.twitter.com/litopia

4 comments on “Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

  1. Laura T
    May 25, 2011

    This was an interesting review to read, as I agree with you that Birch writes extremely well and her evocation of the various settings in the novel is fantastic, but ultimately, I didn’t enjoy reading it (and have explained why in greater detail on my blog…) It makes sense that you said you knew from the start that you would like it, as I was sure from the start it wouldn’t be my cup of tea, which confirms my sense that Birch is a good writer, but just not for me. You pin down the strengths of the novel very well – the only point I would disagree with is Jaffy and Tim’s relationship, which I didn’t think was portrayed with enough complexity for the weight of plot development it had to hold. Not that Birch wrote it badly, exactly, but for me it was the pivot on which the novel turned, and didn’t quite measure up to that role. I thought she handled Ishbel well as a character, however – would have liked to see more scenes in London!

  2. Jackie
    May 25, 2011

    What an enthusiastic review! I like the sounds of a story set among all those animals, but the ship voyage makes me wonder if that would ruin the rest of the book. I suppose I could skip over that part if it bothered me too much.
    In any case, your review showed there was much to like about this book & I would think the author would love all of the positive things you say about it, in such a clear way.

  3. Pingback: 2011 Booker Prize – Short List « Reflections from the Hinterland

  4. Ben Please
    October 22, 2011

    I really enjoyed reading the book. My band (The Bookshop Band) even wrote a song about it for when Carol came into our local bookshop. It’s kind of like a 3 minute musical taster of a book… http://vimeo.com/30924451

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This entry was posted on May 25, 2011 by in Fiction: historical, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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