Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
Long-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Jamrach’s Menagerie is an absorbing story of the sea, a sort of cross between The Life of Pi and The Ancient Mariner; at any rate it has a tiger and a cursed ship.
Jaffy Brown is eight years old. He runs away from Bermondsey with his mother to escape her violent boyfriend. They settle in Ratcliff Highway, in an even dingier neighbourhood, where the shops – and the streets too apparently – are full of exotic birds. While out on an errand, Jaffy meets a tiger that has escaped from its handlers. He survives the encounter and is offered a job by Mr Jamrach, a London dealer in wild animals and birds, to whom the tiger belongs. Charles Jamrach was a real life19th century character who bought and sold animals for profit and had some rich and important clients. And there was indeed a tiger incident! However, most of Carol Birch’s story is fiction.
When Jaffy is fifteen he goes to sea on a whaler on a quest to find and bring back a dragon for his patron. Having captured the creature, presumably a Kommodo Dragon, and having caged it aboard, the crew of the whaler succumb to a series of disasters. The ship is ultimately wrecked in a storm. The crew escape in whaling boats. The rest of the book is taken up with their adventures as they struggle against the elements, suffer hunger and thirst and strive to retain their humanity.
The story is told by Jaffy himself in a lively first person narration. His short, sharp and sometimes ungrammatical narrative is in keeping with his background as a poor lad from the docklands of London. However, I am a traditionalist when it comes to grammar and punctuation and was sometimes irritated by the short verbless sentences. I found myself occasionally turning back the pages and re-reading to make sure I had understood. Yet there was much to enjoy in the novel. It includes vivid descriptions of a whale hunt and its outcome which show whaling up as the barbaric and disgusting practice it is. And the story has other dark undertones reminiscent of Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea and of the landmark legal case in Victorian Britain, R v Dudley and Stephens.
To recap briefly, Tom Dudley was captain of a yacht bound from Southampton to Australia in 1884. Edwin Stephens was a member of the crew along with Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker, who was cabin boy. The ship was struck by a wave and sank; the crew took to a lifeboat. When they ran out of rations, Dudley killed Parker, who had meantime become ill, and the other three ate his body. On their return to England, Dudley and Stephens – though not Brooks – were charged with Parker’s murder.
Although the conclusion of Jamrach’s Menagerie is somewhat different, the shipwrecked crew of the whaler undergo much the same trials as their real life counterparts and find themselves faced with a similar moral dilemma.
Carol Birch’s descriptions of the squalor of dockside London, of the whale hunt and of the cruel sea are atmospheric. Yet, despite the serious subject matter, Jamrach’s Menagerie is not without humour. My reservations about the grammatic style aside, I could engage with Jaffy and enjoyed reading his exploits.