This book was definitely outside my comfort zone. Hunters, whalers, sailors, animal suffering, gore, sweat … These are not things I enjoy reading about. So it’s really not a book I normally would have picked up but I heard about it on the Guardian Books podcast and it sounded so interesting that I had to give it a go. And I’m glad I did.
Jaffy is a young boy who is intrigued by animals. One day he meets a tiger on the streets of London – and walks right up to it. The tiger takes him in it’s mouth and walks away with him but it doesn’t hurt him. He is saved by Jamrach, whose cage the tiger has escaped from. Jamrach has a menagerie from which he sells animals to rich people who is looking for something exotic and he offers Jaffy a job and eventually, this leads to Jaffy going on an expedition to catch a dragon.
He sets sail together with his best friend Tim and a group of sailors as well as a man whose job it is to catch animals for Jamrach. Along the way, they hunt whales. But finally they get to the islands where the dragons live and start hunting. But maybe they catch more than they bargained for – or maybe the sailors are just so superstitious that that is the cause of all the trouble which follows.
‘/…/ the time before the dragon and the time after are not the same.’ (p. 179)
The novel is split in two parts. The first details Jaffy’s interest and love for animals as well as the hunt for the dragon. The other is about a ship wreck. The novel is based in part on reality – there was a man named Jamrach, there was a tiger loose in London and there was a ship, the Essex, which sank and caused the sailors to try and survive in every which way they could. This incident also inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (which I have yet to read). I read the book because of the tiger and the hunt for the dragon – which is what we know as the Komodo dragon. But the part of the book that I really, really loved was the part after the ship wreck. It was so exciting and I almost missed my stop while reading on the train.
What really makes this book work is the language. The language is colorful and unsentimental: ‘I loved my ma. To me, she would ever and always be a warm armpit in the night.‘ (p. 68) It’s so evocative that I at times tried to read with my eyes closed to avoid the bloody and brutal images of the whale hunting, the dragons feasting on one of their own, the sailors struggling to survive. Everything is so salty, sweaty, grimy, harsh and even cruel, at some points. It’s definitely not for the squeamish! And yet Jaffy shines through. He’s an amazing boy whose luck it is that he meets a tiger because this leads to the adventure of his life.
The nineteeth-century London as well as the challenges sailors faced in this period, really comes to life in this novel. The London which Jaffy, Tim and Tim’s sister Ishbel grows up in, is so vividly described, you can almost smell it. And the hardships sailors faced in this period of time with no way of signaling for help or any chance of survival except facing the toughest decisions any person has to face – you’re right there with them when they make these decisions.
Birch has written a very good novel in a way that really makes it’s subject and characters come to life. It’s a hard book to read in some ways because of all the grime and gore but it is a wonderful book about the strength of humans, human conviction and ideals and the importance of going after the impossible.
- Title: Jamrach’s Menagerie
- Author: Carol Birch
- Publisher: Canongate
- Year: 2011
- Pages: 348 pages
- Source: Rented from the library
- Stars: 4 stars out of 5