Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch - BOOK REVIEW

8/31/2011 04:11:00 PM

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
Title:  Jamrach's Menagerie
Author:  Carol Birch
Publisher:   Doubleday Publishing, a division of Random House
Release Date:  June 14, 2011
Hardcover, 304 pages
ISBN 10:    038553440X
ISBN 13:  9780385534406
The Book Depository / Amazon


Goodreads description:

A thrilling and powerful novel about a young boy lured to sea by the promise of adventure and reward, with echoes of Great Expectations, Moby-Dick, and The Voyage of the Narwhal.

Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of a nineteenth-century street urchin named Jaffy Brown. Following an incident with an escaped tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr. Charles Jamrach, the famed importer of exotic animals, alongside Tim, a good but sometimes spitefully competitive boy. Thus begins a long, close friendship fraught with ambiguity and rivalry.

Mr. Jamrach recruits the two boys to capture a fabled dragon during the course of a three-year whaling expedi­tion. Onboard, Jaffy and Tim enjoy the rough brotherhood of sailors and the brutal art of whale hunting. They even succeed in catching the reptilian beast.

But when the ship’s whaling venture falls short of expecta­tions, the crew begins to regard the dragon—seething with feral power in its cage—as bad luck, a feeling that is cruelly reinforced when a violent storm sinks the ship.

Drifting across an increasingly hallucinatory ocean, the sur­vivors, including Jaffy and Tim, are forced to confront their own place in the animal kingdom. Masterfully told, wildly atmospheric, and thundering with tension, Jamrach's Menagerie is a truly haunting novel about friendship, sacrifice, and survival.

My Take: 

First Sentence:  I was born twice.

A young, poor boy from Bermondsey is almost swallowed by a tiger when walking the street.  Thus begins the adventure of Jaffy, who is befriended and somewhat sponsored by the owner of the tiger, Charles Jamrach, an importer and seller of various exotic animals and birds.  While working for Jamrach, Jaffy discovers that he has a quieting way with animals and his gift serves him well at this, his second job.

Jaffy has always dreamed of becoming a sailor, and eventually he and his friend Tim, who also work for Mr. Jamrach, sign on to The Lysander, a whaler,  to sail on a mission with Dan Rymer, a sailor who often brings Jamrach animals on commission.  There is another point to this particular excursion:  Dan is to bring back the Ora - a dragon of sorts, for the owner of the ship, Mr. Fledge. 

We follow Jaffy on his new adventures, meeting new and exotic people and traveling to far-flung lands.  Some things work out as expected, and some tragically don't.

The first part of this story is delightful in places, but if all this tale was about was a poor boy's tale of working with animals during the day and in a tavern at night, unrequited young love, and an at-times antagonistic burgeoning friendship, the storyline would have quickly become stale.

The whaling adventures and misadventures, a heartbreaking tragedy at sea, and a tale of desperation brought about by starvation - THIS is where I see how this novel is deserving of a Man Booker Prize.  Impeccable pacing brings the reader into the choppy sea, in one of a pair of flimsy lifeboats, after the Lysander is capsized.  I really can't say much more without spoilers; but I felt as though I were fighting to survive along with the characters.  This is a tale of the triumph of the human spirit, able to beat back against seemingly insurmountable odds.  Ms. Birch loosely bases the Lysander's sinking on that of the Essex (the inspiration for Moby Dick), and inserts another real-life character in Mr. Jamrach.  Nineteenth-century England, with all of its grit, poverty, desperation, and hope comes to life in these pages.

If you like historical fiction, adventure, or character-AND-action driven literary-type fiction, you can't go wrong in picking this one up.

QUOTES (from an ARC; may differ in final copy):

The women in the Spoony Sailor were whorier than the ones in the Malt Shove, but not as whory as those in Paddy's Goose, though the Goose girls were by far the swishiest and the prettiest.  I knew a girl there who wouldn't be called a whore, said she was a courtesan.  Terrible women, some of them, I suppose, but they were always nice to me.

I had never walked like this, hand in hand with a man as I had seen others walk with fathers, and it made me feel peculiar.  My own father's name I didn't know for sure.  Sometimes Andrea, sometimes Theo, you never could tell with Ma.  A dark sailor with a glass to his eye.

"I was lying in the gutter," said Dan, "and a small dog had just pissed upon my shoulder."  He took a drink.  "'Dear God', I said. 'Thank you.  Thank you , my God.  It could have been my face.'"

Writing:  4 out of 5 stars
Plot:   5 out of 5 stars
Characters:  4.5 out of 5 stars
Reading Immersion:  4.5 out 5 stars

BOOK RATING:   4.5 out of 5 stars

Sensitive Reader:  It's a book about sailors; expect cursing like a sailor :)

BLOGGERS:  Have you reviewed this book? If so, please feel free to leave a link to your review in the comments section; I will also add your link to the body of my review.

Read an excerpt

BUY IT:  At Amazon, The Book Depository, through the publisher's website,  and through other on-and-off-line booksellers.

This book is one of my listed titles for the 2011 ARC Reading Challenge


This post is linked to Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesdays; feel free to leave a link to your own Book Review Wednesday post in the comments!

Disclosure:  I  received a  complimentary copy of this title from the publisher  to facilitate my review.  No other compensation was received and I was not required to post a positive review.

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  1. I'm with you on the comparative staleness between the beginning of the book and the survivalist part. I couldn't really get into much of the novel because so much of the first part was kind of boring.

  2. I came from Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday (BRPW).

    Usually I leave a link to BRPW. It's courteous and I think it is the right thing to do. However your comment system specifically asked not to do so, and I will respect that.

    Did the book end well?

    Cherry Mischievous

  3. @Cherry:

    I'm sorry; for memes, I usually say in the post that it's OK to leave your own link to your meme post. (Will change that in this post right now).

    It ended .. sadly in some ways, but with hope.

  4. This is your blog Juls. Your blog, your rules. And that is perfectly alright. :)

    Does that mean the author left room for possible sequels?

  5. @Cherry

    There are people who take advantage of blogs to leave their links everywhere (often coupled with either no comment or something generic like "Great blog!"), so I tend to specify where links are allowed (for example, if someone else is participating in a certain meme/readathon, etc., or if they have their own review for a book I've reviewed). :)

    No, the author did not really leave room for a sequel, or if she did, it would likely not be as effective as this one (after all, how often can one person live through a survival tale?) :)

  6. This one is new to me. I haven't heard about it but it does sound interesting. Must remember to keep this one on my wishlist.


Comments make me feel all squishy happy inside, so drop a line if you see or read something interesting! PLEASE don't leave links to your blog or page unless the post you're replying to specifically asks you to leave a link!
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