Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch is part documentary, part high-seas adventure, and part book of horrors. Inspired by the historical figure Charles Jamrach and by real events, Birch crafts an exploration of 19th-century England, the workings of a whaling ship, and the very question of what humanity is.
“Three years and come back a man, come back changed. See the strange places I itch to see. See the sea. Could you ever get sick of the sight of the sea?”
– Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch is part documentary, part high-seas adventure, and part book of horrors. Inspired by the historical figure Charles Jamrach, who was an exotic animals dealer in the 19th century, and by real events (the escape of a Bengal tiger who picked up a small boy and carried him in its mouth; the wreck of the whaleship Essex and the crew’s subsequent descent into cannibalism as a means of survival), Birch crafts an exploration of 19th-century England, the workings of a whaling ship, and the very question of what humanity is.
Told by Jaffy Brown as he looks back at the events that shaped his life, the tale begins in the filth of Bermondsey, England. The narrator as a small, fatherless child roams the sewers in search of pennies, living with the stench and the gnawing hunger of deep poverty. At age 8, relocated to Ratcliffe Highway in London, Jaffy comes face to face with the first major event that will change him: an encounter with a runaway tiger from the exotic animal menagerie run by Mr. Jamrach. Fearless, and with a deeply intuitive and calm relationship with animals, Jaffy walks right up to the tiger, who is “like the Sun himself came down and walked on earth,” (p. 10) and pets the creature’s nose. He is utterly guileless and not particularly aware of any danger he is in from this large, wild cat, who knocks Jaffy over and carries him in his mouth down the Highway. He is rescued by Jamrach, who is amazed at Jaffy’s fearlessness and manner around animals and gives him a job as a yard-boy in his menagerie.
Jaffy views his emergence from the tiger’s mouth as a second birth, the beginning of his real life, where he is introduced to animals of every stripe, along with sailors, animal buyers, and the two people who will be his best friends and nemeses all at once: the twins Tim and Ishbel Linver. By turns tormenters and co-conspirators, the three have the run of London when they are free to do so—when they are not working to help support their families, Tim and Jaffy at Jamrach’s, Ishbel dancing at an alehouse.
Birch evokes London at a time when the buying and selling of exotic species, of ripping them from their natural habitats and caging them in poor conditions for rich customers, was big business. Her setting is so sensually vivid it’s at times difficult to remember that you’re reading a book and not standing in the Highway, hearing the birds, smelling the salt air, seeing the peddlers and urchins and food stalls and shops. Jumping forward a few years into the children’s late-teens, Tim and Jaffy choose to go to sea with their older sailor friend, Dan Rymer. In search of a dragon for a wealthy client of Jamrach’s, they leave behind their mothers and Ishbel, with whom Jaffy is hopeless smitten. We also leave behind the world that Birch has so realistically created for us in favour of a whaling ship and her exotic ports. Each place the Lysander visits is rendered in just as much breathless detail—never once veering into the boring or the pedantic, through Jaffy Birch evokes the day-to-day life on the ship, the joys and pursuits found in the port towns they land in, and, in ten pages of awe-inspiring storytelling, the hunt for a whale: the chase, the fight, the harpooning, the death throes, the butchering, the extraction of the precious oil for which the whole thing happens. I had never considered, really, how whalers in the 1800s would have gone about killing whales. The details shared here are intense, each motion and smell and feeling and danger playing out so that the reader is like one of the crew, party to the slaughter.
And just as the carefully built world of Jamrach’s England is abandoned for the sea, so too do we veer abruptly from the adventure and high spirits of whaling and the ultimate hunt for the dragon. The creatures, huge heretofore unknown, vicious reptiles, are found on an uninhabited southern island. The hunt and capture of one of the dragons, its time on the Lysander, and everything that happens because of its capture, make up the bulk of Part Two. In fact, more time is spent on the two or three months involving the dragon and its aftermath than any other point in Jaffy’s life: these few months are what define him. Everything that comes before, from the tiger onward, is leading up to these events. Everything that comes afterward is influenced by them. Birch pushes the limits of Jaffy’s experience in gruesome ways, questioning what it is to be a sailor, a friend, a brother, a human being.
She also crafts the difficult relationships between many of her characters well, although some of them are frustrating. Ishbel’s coquettish behaviour toward the poor Jaffy is perhaps believable but mostly annoying. The insanity of Jaffy’s sailing comrade Skip grates at times, and the deaths one by one of the Lysander’s crew occasionally smack of redshirtism—main characters make out slightly better here than those in the background, who are certainly faced with tragedy but who aren’t defined enough for us as readers to mourn. Jaffy’s friendship with Tim, part-brother and part-bully to him, is particularly well rendered, however, and is almost suggestive of an unrealized homoerotic relationship, if not a very strong bromance. Each follows the other, quite literally to the ends of the earth. The way their story ends is perfect in its inevitability.
A marvellous storyteller, Birch relays events in part two that are indeed ghastly, the aftermath of a shipwreck, of being lost at sea, that her readers will more than likely never come close to experiencing. And yet now I have seen what it might be like to go through this ordeal: the narration has given me a glimpse into a world I’d never really thought about before, given me sounds, smells, textures, pains, horrors that I’d never considered. The material is sometimes difficult to stomach but the story is worthwhile. Now, weeks after finishing the book, Jaffy’s experiences haunt me as they haunt him the book’s last part. I think they’ll linger with me for a long time to come.
Four out of five blue pencils
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch, published in Canada by HarperCollins for Canongate, © 2011