Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
This story of young Jaffy Brown and his adventures, starting with an encounter with an escaped tiger, was another really good book group choice. We all throroughly enjoyed this impeccably researched and ultimately rather gory tale of exploration and shipwreck in Victorian times.
The Guardian’s review of the book tells a little more about Jamrach himself – for he was based upon a real person; also some of his customers… the artist Rosetti bought a wombat from him for instance, which I do remember reading before somewhere.
After he meets the tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr Jamrach, an animal dealer, and learns the business starting with mucking out, under the watchful and sometimes bullying eye of Jamrach’s other apprentice Tim Linver. Tim will become like a surrogate older brother to Jaffy, and Jaffy will fall for his sister. We all loved this section of the book which brought the very Dickensian East End of London to life vividly. Although his animals were kept in, by our modern standards, cramped conditions, Jamrach came across as paternal to them and his lads, but was obviously a shrewd operator too.
All too soon this part of the story ended, as Tim, and then Jaffy, sign on as crew for a three year voyage which will search for dragons in the East Indies on a whaling ship. Our book group’s Christmas read last year was Moby Dick, and Birch’s novel certainly rivals Melville’s in its adventure and tragedy on the high seas. Indeed, both stories were inspired by the true story of the whaling ship, the Essex which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, and the ordeal of its survivors.
The crew of Birch’s Lysander come to life too, from gruff Dan to madman Skip and the slightly aloof captain, whose name escapes me (having lent the book out); Jaffy and Tim soon slot into the crew. When the going is good, life is very good for the sailors, but when things turn bad – well … you know what happens.
All of our group would have liked to know more about Jamrach himself, he is really only a titular presence. We would have been fascinated to hear more about how he got into the business and where his animals came from (apart from the komodo ‘dragons’ that is). That would have made a rather long book though. Jaffy’s coming of age is not a conventional story, but has a fitting conclusion, although you can never take the sea out of a sailor … We’d recommend it as a book group read. (8.5/10)