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. Continue reading “The Ashes That Are Left Behind: A review of Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch”