Jamrach’s Menagerie – Book Review

A mile from the shoal we hove to. A ghostly feather appeared, far, far out to sea, just for a second, and my heart was beating very very fast. Tim, down from his eyrie, ran over to me, out of breath. “This is it.” He could hardly get it out. “This is it, this it, Jaf,” he said and gripped my hand hard. My mouth had gone dry. – from Jamrach’s Menagerie –

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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FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review on my blog.

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  1. Though I did hear of this book when it was nominated, I did not read a review until I read this one so thanks for the review.

    • Laura on July 18, 2011 at 02:57

    I was dubious about this one, and now I think I’ll skip it! Good review, Wendy.

  2. Hm, I don’t know what to think of this one now. I think I’ll have to be in the right mood to read it.

    • Wendy on July 18, 2011 at 05:44

    Mystica: You’re welcome!

    Laura: Well, I do not think this is a book you would like… 🙂

    Kathy: I believe this is one of the Orange books which has gotten some mixed reviews. The Library Thing reviewers seem to be giving the book pretty good reviews.

  3. This is the first review of this book that I have read, and I am not sure it sounds like it’s for me. I had the opportunity to review it, but decided to pass it up based on the fact that I knew so little about it. Sounds like it could be a tough book to swallow at some points. Your review does make me curious, but I am still not sure I would read it!

  4. Great review! I’ve heard such mixed opinions about this one, but it seems like most have the same issues with the book as you did. Personally, the graphic nature of the later parts will probably keep me from reading this one.

  5. I have this one on my TBR, and I’ve been a bit surprised how little I’ve read about it thus far. The topic sounds so interesting to me, and I admit how surprised I am that it sounds so interesting to me, as it’s not normally my thing. I hope I like it a bit more than you did, at any rate.

    • Aths on July 19, 2011 at 12:04

    I read a few passages from this book yesterday and it was entertaining. I am hoping to squeeze it into my reading this month.

    • Wendy on July 24, 2011 at 07:53

    Heather: I do know that some people have loved this book (the LT reviewers were fairly generous with praise)…but there were issues for me certainly.

    Jenna: If you are a sensitive reader, definitely steer clear. I don’t consider myself a “sensitive reader” but there were parts of this book that really turned me off.

    Carrie: I hope you’ll enjoy this book more than I did – I will look forward to your review!!

    Aths: I will admit that there were parts which were really good (Birch’s writing is good for the most part)…will look forward to seeing what you think once you’ve read the whole thing!

  6. I absolutely love what the author does with this novel….even though I absolutely hated reading parts of it. So visceral, so overwhelming. But I think she did a fine, fine job of it. I definitely want to read more of her work now!

    • Wendy on August 2, 2011 at 06:42

    Buried In Print: Glad you fully appreciated this one! I agree about it being visceral…and even though I didn’t love this novel, I would definitely read another book by this author.

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