|‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ by Carol Birch|
|Summary of my review:|
|It is an interesting adventure story with impeccable writing, and though it doesn’t appear to give you much to think about up front, it is a far more cerebral book than it seems.|
|ISBN: 978-0385534406, Pages: 304|
I picked this book because I’ve always wanted a 19th century ship voyage story that was actually interesting, and I was not disappointed by Jamrach’s Menagerie.
One day Jaffy, a boy living in poverty in 19th century London, finds himself in the jaws of a tiger owned by Jamrach, a wild animal dealer. Jamrach rescues the boy and gives him a job in his menagerie, caring for the animals.
Time passes and Jaffy (kind of) befriends Tim, his coworker of the same age, and his older sister. When he is old enough, he leaves on a ship journey east to capture a (komodo) dragon for Jamrach, and that’s when the book really takes off. Oh, also, there’s a ship wreck. I didn’t see it coming – even though it now says so in the book blurb – and not knowing that added a lot to the book for me, so I’ll spoiler it out as I go.
There are two main characters in this book: Jaffy (the narrator) and Tim (his frenemy – yes, I said that, and I seriously hate that term, but it is the most apt description of Tim), though I’ll also talk about some of the larger minor characters.
He is the character we experience the story through, heavy emphasis on the word experience. Through the narration, we get a healthy dose of not only the key points of the story, but of the significance of each thing. I’ll go over this more in the writing section, but the author is poetic in the descriptions.
We follow Jaffy through the story, from when he is a small child to him as an old man, and the author handles the aging very well. See the writing section below for more elaboration on this point.
Moving on past the writing, I wasn’t interested in Jaffy as a character.He’s more of an everyman through which we experience the story and doesn’t have too many salient characteristics that make him, well, him. He was done so well otherwise, though, and there were so many other characters with noteworthy personalities that I found Jaffy’s relative formlessness a little refreshing.
I used the odious word “frenemy” above, and I wouldn’t have said it if it didn’t fit incredibly well. Tim is Jaffy’s only friend and enemy. He is a coworker at Jamrach’s menagerie who, though he and his sister hang out with Jaffy on their time off and are his only friends, is basically just an ambitious, ruthless jerk. The author does a great job of having you experience all of Tim’s pointless bullying through Jaffy and making you dislike the character.
That being said, he is redeemed in one of the best ways possible. He literally gives up his life so his friends could live. In a scene that I didn’t think would happen until Jaffy pulled the trigger, Tim stuck to his oath to be the one to die and be eaten so his friends could survive in the lifeboat.
Looking over the course of the story, Tim’s character was done very well. You watch him grow from a somewhat-cruel, annoying kid to a leader and a man willing to sacrifice for his friends. In Jaffy you have the experience and the telling of the story, but in Tim you actually have the story.
That being said, I would have liked for Skip to die.
Is he brilliant or just insane? Or both? Or neither? A vaguely supernatural character (he is kind of a seer), he is more of a liability than an asset, and I’m not sure why he was included on the ship voyage or trusted at all. He has some good lines and is an overall interesting character, if only for his insight.
The experienced man on the trip, Dan is sort of the rock for everyone, keeping his head and leading people through the capture of the dragon, the shipwreck, the lifeboats, and helping Jaffy overcome his depression. Not an overly interesting character, but very realistic.
I hadn’t written a komodo dragon off as a dangerous animals or anything like that before reading this book, but neither had I ever thought of it as overly threatening. In this book the description of it makes it seem like the devil himself. The thing is such a powerful, dark, hateful presence on the ship that, for the chapters until it falls off, it is a bit overwhelming. You know it’s just an animal…but then things start to go badly. You start to see it more and more through Jaffy’s point of view, or Jaffy is slowly becoming more influenced by the superstition and the terror of those on the ship, and the dragon becomes less just an animal and more a horrible, vile expression of evil.
The plot is everything for this book, and it delivers. I thought it was paced perfectly. As soon as you are starting to get tired of Jaffy being a little kid, you get different experiences with him as an adolescent working in the menagerie. As soon as the menagerie starts to drag a little bit, he sets sail, etc. It progresses well, and it’s nice to read something that’s just a well-told story. One of the reviewers remarked that Birch shows the benefit of choosing a style and sticking with it, and I agree. I don’t know if, as a former English major, I can admit I’ve never been able to read Moby Dick (I’ve tried, in earnest, four times), but this book is everything I’ve ever wanted out of a 19th century ship voyage story.
If I had to pick anything to critique about the plot, it would be the last 20% or so of the book. The shipwreck and subsequent days were rough, but you as a reader understand that those times will be terrible, but the protagonist will most likely pull through. What I wasn’t expecting was how depressing the last part would be. Of course, by the very nature of this being a “problem,” it shows how well the book is written. Jaffy is wallowing in depression, and as readers, we will experience that with him. If the last part wasn’t depressing, then Birch wouldn’t be doing her job as an author. That being said, I did think it went on a bit long.
There was a bit of a love story, but it wasn’t the focus at all, and I don’t think the fact that he marries Tim’s sister at the end is overly important or significant.
I had to strain for themes a bit for this one. I noticed a fairly prominent idea of colonization throughout the novel. You have these men coming from this far away land under the direction of a richer and more powerful man to subjugate and enslave these animals. The dragon, then, could represent an idea of the colonists stretching beyond what is permissible. They are too far from home for help and subjugate a creature who curses them to a horrendous fate. The creature dies, but not before destroying the colonists. So, you know, it was a win for everyone involved.
In that vein, what does Jaffy do when he comes back and overcomes his depression? He starts a menagerie. I was surprised, if only because he lost so many friends to such a venture, why would he want to be the one sending young men out to what could possibly amount to the same fate? While this may be unpleasant, it is the only life he knows, and the only way for him to survive. There are young men, like poverty-stricken Jaffy, willing to risk their lives to subjugate these creatures, and there’s a demand in society for it, so Jaffy steps naturally into that role. I think, if there is a message about colonization in Jamrach’s Menagerie, it is that the concept of colonization and its subsequent subjugation is multi-faceted and systemic, not only a few rich and powerful people at the top exerting their will (though it is definitely that as well).
Nearly every reviewer was right – the writing was beautiful. I don’t mean beautiful as in flowery – there were some horrible things, like the dragons tearing a carcass apart, or the feeling of rough rope on burned skin – but beautiful as in rich and descriptive. It was refined and extremely polished.
The writing for the different stages of Jaffy’s life is really excellent, and is a big part of what kept me reading this book. For example, when he is a child you drift along with him in a dream-like, sensory haze. When, for example, he is snatched up by the tiger, he doesn’t fully understand what is happening to him, and neither really do you until you are able to piece it together immediately preceding, but you do get a rich, experiential description.
Later on in his life, after he has survived the shipwreck, cannibalism, and killing his best friend, you are privy to the thoughts of a very changed and depressed man. As I mentioned above, I found those chapters to be a bit tough to get through, but I think they were meant to be tough. In the same way that the early pages are whimsical and the time he is locked in the menagerie is a little terrifying, the last pages are convincingly describing the extreme depression the character (and anyone, for that matter) would feel after going through what he did.
I am going to give this book a solid 97%. It is an interesting adventure story with impeccable writing, and though it doesn’t appear to give you much to think about up front, it is a far more cerebral book than it seems. Even if it wasn’t, shouldn’t well-written, interesting stories be enough, critics?
Well, if you would like to talk about anything above, or just how terrifying komodo dragons are, drop a line in the comments.
Full disclosure: As usual, I received no compensation, financial, existential, or otherwise, and I borrowed this book from my local library. All images are not mine, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.