Jamrach’s Menagerie: Carol Birch

A large Bengal tiger escapes from its cage one morning in 19th century London and lands in front of young Jaffy Brown. The little boy, too young to know what a tiger is, simply cannot resist the temptation to touch the large cat’s soft nose. It is something akin to a miracle that Jaffy comes out of this encounter alive. Charles Jamrach, the owner of the menagerie (a collection of wild animals) to which the tiger belongs, saves Jaffy and also employs him as a yard boy. Thus Jaffy begins a happy life at Jamrach's Menagerie taking care of animals and haunting the dirty alleys of London with his friends Tim and Ishbel. Then comes the Lysander, a whaleship bound southwards on a quest to capture a dragon. Jaffy and Tim find the allure of the Lysander impossible to resist, and life which has been a slow placid sea till this time, now sails into unstable weathers, overturning the logic of things in its wake.

Carol Birch has borrowed from two historical incidents for her novel. Charles Jamrach was indeed an animal dealer and naturalist from London, and his menagerie did have a Bengal tiger which coughed out a boy from its jaws. The second incident is the sinking of the American whaleship Essex. A whaleship or a whaler was meant for capturing whales and processing them for extracting oil. Birch has given an additional objective of capturing a dragon (most likely a Komodo dragon) to her whaleship Lysander in the novel. Apart from Jamrach, all the other characters are fictional, deft creations of the author, where she paints them with vivid and endearing qualities.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is a very unusual novel in the way its narrative unfolds. Birch introduces her characters and their lives slowly without any indication of what is to come next. While we revel in the beautiful descriptions of 19th century London – its taverns and streets, shacks and houses, we have no inkling of the sea that is waiting for Jaffy. It is as if the author spends time on a port, building it beautifully for us and then just leaves it all behind, embarking a ship and moving on to a new port for a new start. This absence of a thrust, of an over arching goal that can push the narrative ahead can be a little disconcerting. But paradoxically, this is also the strength of the novel, for it closely resembles the way real life unfurls on us, showing only little of what is to come and blurring out the past with the passage of time.

Carol Birch’s prose is truly ravishing. She portrays all the locations in her novel very charmingly – be it the downtrodden parts of London, or the exotic islands of Atlantic. This novel is also very readable for the unusual settings on which it unfolds and the tinge of history that Birch so deftly incorporates into its flow. But the most remarkable quality about the novel is the magic embedded in its words which pulls us into Jaffy Brown’s extraordinary adventure, and makes us experience the same things that he does.


litlove said...

So glad to read a review of this - and a gorgeous one, too. I'm seeing this book everywhere at the moment and can't decide whether to read it or not. It's not quite my taste (I shy away from exotic narratives, no idea why!) but I'm intrigued by descriptions of it, too.

Nivedita Barve said...

Thanks litlove!

Arcopol said...

Tiger. Boy. Slightly reminded of Life of Pi - which is a great novel in itself - so this naturally goes into my wishlist! I'm a bit fascinated by accounts where man-animal relationships are examined. Makes me want to believe in the impossible.

Nivedita Barve said...

Hi Arcopol,
If you like tales of humans and animals then this book has a fair share of such themes. Hope you enjoy it!
Thanks for visiting my blog!

Andrew Blackman said...

Like litlove, I was never really attracted to the premise of this book, but your review gave me second thoughts. I just got Half Blood Blues, another one from the Booker shortlist, so will read that first.

Nivedita Barve said...

Oh good! Do let us know how you like Half Blood Blues