Jamrach’s Menagerie is not the book Carol Birch was intending to write. She was researching another novel at the time she stumbled across the story of Jamrach, his Victorian menagerie and the escaped tiger roaming around London’s docklands. So looking her gift tiger squarely in the mouth (sorry …), she began her 11th novel.
Jamrach’s menagerie is a framing device; the hook which leads into the main narrative and the world to which that narrative returns at the end. Jaffy Brown is the boy who is “eaten” by the escapee tiger. He is rescued by and subsequently employed by Jamrach. This opens up the world of exotic animals to him and he proves to be a talented menagerie keeper. When one of Jamrach’s clients commissions a voyage to catch a komodo dragon, Jaffy and his close friend, Tom, sign up to the adventure. Little do they know what they’ve let themselves in for.
The voyage takes up the majority of the page count (231 pages of 348 pages) with the days at sea interspersed with a number of set pieces: a whale hunt, the hunt for the komodo dragon, the shipwreck (no spoiler that – just take a look at the back cover) and the long, long struggle for survival. These pieces really are finely written: well-paced, graphic, wearing their research lightly. I’m not going to go into the detail of Jaffy’s experiences – suffice to say, we all know how people survive the extreme adversity of shipwreck. I did admire the way Birch controlled the unfolding horror of “the custom of the sea”. At first the older boatmates protected the sensibilities of the youthful sailors. The butchering of the dead happened off page, out of sight, in the second boat. Gradually though, cushioning is no longer an option as all vestiges of civilisation are stripped from the survivors. This, by way of foreshadowing, is an earlier image of a group of giant lizards feeding on one of their own: like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass, a red and pink rag trailing festoons.
It strikes me now that that what I originally thought a framing device is more than that – the menagerie turns metaphor in this main piece where the humans, although not caged, are trapped on the sea and stripped back to their basic instincts.
Not a novel for the faint of heart but certainly one for those who enjoy a strong plot accompanied by some very fine writing. Literary antecedents are clear. The sperm whale hunt is a clear homage to Moby Dick (without the mad captain) and there’s something Dickensian (minus the overblown caricatures) in the London scenes. Thankfully, too, it’s not just a survival story. There is something comforting about the relationships that develop between the shipmates, the camaraderie and the affections. Humanity is almost but not quite eradicated even in the darkest hour.
I think this may be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. It has the plot and entertainment that this year’s judges are looking for and the writing is satisfyingly literary. I regret though the almost complete emphasis on the plot. There are interweaving subtleties such as the relationship between Jaffy and Tom that had they been teased out fully would have made the novel more satisfying. Tom himself remained an enigma and I didn’t buy the most honourable of his actions. As a result, the read became a well-told historical adventure yarn. Certainly not something I’d put on the same pedestal as last historical novel to win the Booker, the absolutely brilliant Wolf Hall.