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Jamrach's Menagerie is a novel inspired by two true stories which Carol Birch manages to neatly wind into one outstanding tale of old fashioned adventure and romance.
To set the scene, I will quickly describe the historical facts that inspired her, before going on to describe the novel itself.
The first of these is the amazing Charles Jamrach, who was a famous importer, breeder and seller of wild animals. Jamrach set up his shop and museum in London around 1840, and sold to noblemen, circuses and zoos. Perhaps the most famous story surrounding his extravagant personality surrounds the escape of a Bengal tiger in 1857. This tiger prowled the streets of London, eventually seizing an 8 year old boy in its huge jaws. Jamrach, who was pursuing the escapee, rushed to help and opened the tiger's mouth with his bare hands to rescue the boy. As a result, a statue of boy and tiger still stands in the Tobacco Dock shopping centre in Wapping to commemorate the event.
The sinking of the Essex is the next historical event to inspire this novel. The Essex was a whaling boat that was destroyed and sunk by one of the whales it was chasing in 1820. The story of what happened next inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick and also inspired this novel. The ship sank 2000 miles west of South America and the surviving crew abandoned ship in three small whaleboats. They were adrift for 95 days in total before being rescued, but only 14 days had passed before they ran out of food and were drinking their own urine to survive. In the end their plight became so desperate that they had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive.
Jaffy Brown is eight years old and lives in the slums of Bermondsey with his mother. He is a cheeky and adventurous little boy who is daunted by nothing, not even the filth of the slums or desperate pangs of hunger. He laps up the life around him until one day he meets the most exciting thing of all; a real life tiger. Hypnotised by the beauty of the beast, he is seized in its jaws and rescued by the owner, Charles Jamrach.
Jamrach is drawn to the resilience and humour of the boy and eventually offers him employment in his menagerie, looking after the animals and acting as a general help in the shop and museum. It is here that Jaffy meets the two people who are to have the most profound influence on the rest of his life; twins Tim and Ishbel Linver. A little older and more streetwise than Jaffy, Tim has worked for Jamrach for years, looking after the lions, the Barbary apes, the crocodiles and million other animals that Jaffy has never dreamt of seeing.
Jaffy both loves and hates the twins, but mainly loves Ishbel, who he falls passionately in love with at first sight. Over the years his relationship with them matures and equalises, but he can never be fully sure that he has their friendship. His need for their approval leads him to follow Tim on the greatest adventure of all; a sea adventure, working for Jamrach and looking for the mystical dragon that is said to live east of the Java Sea. This three year voyage on the whaling ship Lysander is the beginning of the real story; a story that includes mysticism, legend, bravery, death and despair. It is this journey that will turn Jaffy into a man, but the things he has to face during the three years may also destroy him forever.
For me, this story was like reading three books rolled into one, each of them an exciting adventure in itself. The beginning, with the mud and poverty of Wapping reminded me of Jeanette Winterston's Sexing the Cherry. The camaraderie, the filth the stinking River Thames and the struggle to survive are mixed in with old fashioned wonder and excitement when Jaffy starts to work for Jamrach. The way in which Carol Birch creates the mysterious atmosphere of the menagerie and the shop is fantastic and echoes the innocence and ignorance of people living in that time. The excitement is infectious.
The middle of the book is the more human story of a young boy growing up and trying to better himself to pull out of the poverty that he has inherited from his mother. The love story between Ishbel and Jaffy is a central them and one that is completely gripping, but alongside this runs Jaffy's complicated relationship with Tim; the struggle of two strong and competing personalities who are reluctant to admit affection.
Finally the book changes direction completely and becomes a seafaring adventure. Birch again creates a complete and believable world aboard the mighty whaling ship Lysander, that takes Tim and Jaffy across the Indian Ocean. The detail of the ships rituals, the crew and the structure take the reader into a completely different world, but one that is equally gripping. This section of the book is the largest section and includes description about wondrous lands, mysterious sea mists, and whaling itself.
Dividing the book like this must have been a considerable risk; it could have resulted in three very disjointed threads that disturbed the flow of the plot, but Carol Birch manages to make the transition very natural and to give an amazing amount of background detail to each part with the minimum of words.
I was completely gripped throughout the book; it reminded me of the Enid Blyton 'Adventure Series' that I loved to read when I was young. The action comes thick and fast and each character that Jaffy meets is well rounded and believable. This was a real page-turner for me; I wanted to know if the dragon is captured, I wanted to know if the crew survives, I wanted to know if the course of true love runs true and Jaffy and Ishmel will ever have a future. It was a rip-roaring read in the true tradition of every adventure story that has ever been written.
Carol Birch is the British author of 11 previous novels including Turn Again Home, which was long-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize. She has won the Geoffrey Faber Award and the David Higham Award.
Jamrach's Menagerie was published in 2011 by Cannongate Books. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. My paperback edition has 348 pages.