Saturday, 20 August 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (HarperCollins 2011)

Set in 1857 Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of Jaffy, a poor but happy child who wanders the streets of the East End of London, through the mire and the open sewers bare footed without the least concern. When one day he encounters a tiger newly escaped from its captivity he brazenly walks up to pet its nose only to end up in the tiger's mouth. His rescue came in the form of the eponymous Jamrach, an exotic animal dealer who leaps atop the creature and forces its jaws apart. Jamrach's menagerie is a place of wonder filled with Tasmanian devils, all kinds of birds and primates and Jaffy takes a job there where he encounters Jamrach's assistant Tim Linver and Dan Rymer, the salty sea dog/animal tracker responsible for collecting some of Jamrach's more exotic products.

When one day a Mr Fledge comes in and asks that he be supplied a dragon (most likely a Komodo Dragon) Jaffy, Tim and Dan join the crew of one of Mr Fledge's whale boats and set out towards the South Seas in pursuit of their quarry. What follows is a somewhat harrowing tale of torture, starvation and whole lot of pain as things go from terrible to worse in a story partly inspired by the true tale of the Essex (a story which also partly inspired another infamous book of whaling ships, Moby Dick).

It is an intentionally difficult book to read as the author tries to put you into the mindset of the protagonists as they go through some pretty extreme torment and the result is that some chapters go by a great deal slower than the rest (reading a chapter about the doldrums is liable to send one into them oneself). It is a very evocative book and as Jaffy, Tim and Dan suffer, I could feel their pain.

The book is far from perfect. Some of the characters aren't developed well enough  such as Skip whose madness is just accepted but never questioned or explained, or Tim who becomes incredibly two-dimensioned once they set foot aboard the whaling ship. Also the ending is a little too rose-coloured as things at last come together in an ending Disney would be proud of. However, these are comparatively minor complaints and I wouldn't be surprised to see this making the Booker Prize shortlist.