Tuesday, September 6, 2011

*Jamrach's Menagerie, by Carol Birch

Doubleday, 2011
295 pp.

"...the time before the dragon and the time after are not the same."

I love all things Victorian; I love Victorian novels, well-written Victorian imitations, and I just have a thing for this time period in general.  Two things about this book grabbed me from the very start: first, the fact that it's set in 1857 and second, the only illustration in the book, that of a fiendish-looking waterspout on the open sea standing just behind a ship at full sail.   And as it turns out, most of the way through the novel I was a very happy reader.  More on this later. 

Jamrach's Menagerie is Carol Birch's eleventh novel; she published her first book in 1988. It is told in the style of a Victorian narrative, although probably not as well imagined as Derby Day, which to me is a much better imitation of the style and better use of idiom. The story is related through the eyes of one Jaffy Brown, who is eight years old at the outset of the novel, and follows Jaffy through to adulthood.  It is told in three parts: Jaffy's childhood and his fateful meeting with a tiger on the loose in the streets of London's East End; the events during a three-year sea voyage on which Jaffy was a crew member, and finally, Jaffy's return from the sea.

In Part One, we are introduced to Jaffy, his mother and the streets of the East End. Having been forced to move to Watney Street, one day Jaffy is out running an errand and comes upon a tiger moving down the middle of the Ratcliffe Highway.  Awed by its beauty, and without fear, Jaffy lifts his hand to touch it, and is snatched up in the beast's jaws.  Jaffy is fine, but the meeting with the tiger leads to a meeting with its owner, the Jamrach of the title.  It is then that Jaffy's life changes -- he gets a job with Jamrach tending to his menagerie of exotic beasts. It is also then that Jaffy meets several people who will remain important in his life throughout the story.   But it is how Jamrach obtains these creatures that is important to Jaffy's story, and which  leads us to part two of the novel -- Jamrach arranges expeditions to capture and import the animals after a collector has decided upon his choice.  As part two begins ("So much for Jaffy the child. He didn't last long, did he?"), a Mr. Fledge, "who always wanted what no one else had ever had," has decided that now he must have a dragon, an "ora".  One of Jamrach's associates, a sea-faring adventurer named Dan Rymer, had related that he knew of a place where he could obtain this creature, on an island east of the Java Sea.  Jaffy and his friend Tim are recruited to go on Fledge's ship the Lysander along with Rymer and the ship's whaling crew to catch and return the dragon.  Promised that upon their successful return, they would never have to work again, the ship sets sail.  While there is much speculation as to the nature of the dragon before the ship arrives on the island, it is finally captured (it turns out to be a komodo dragon or something along those lines) and caged on board the ship.  But it isn't long until mayhem ensues and the ship is wrecked, forcing the crew to take to the whaleboats.  The rest of part two is the story of the crew's adventures on the sea, reading much like the narrative of Owen Chase in The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, also retold in Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea. If you've read either of those, you will know how things come out; if not, well, you're in for something pretty gruesome. (As an aside, I can highly recommend both books).   In Part Three, Jaffy returns to England (neither surprise nor spoiler since Jaffy's telling the story), where he tries to make sense of his experiences and to find his own sense of place and peace after the horrible events of the voyage of the Lysander.

This book has so many good things to offer, but there are also a few things that bothered me.  Birch gives us a vivid picture of street life in London -- the mix of colors and smells, the descriptions of  people at their occupations, the  living conditions of the poor, the circus of people on the Ratcliffe Highway.   The sense of place is well evoked; the East End comes alive.  Life at sea is also well described, and through her characters, Birch manages to get across that the whaling industry is on the wane;  a longstanding way of life for so many is about to end.  And even here, it's like she'd been on a whaling ship herself: the scenes where the crew captures a whale and its guts are all over the decks are so real I was kind of gagging just picturing it.   Later there are some pretty tense moments during the capture of the dragon on the island and  on board the ship,  but surprisingly, even though what comes afterwards in the whaleboats will both haunt and  come to define Jaffy's post-Lysander life, the telling of these events comes across as rather flat.  And even more surprisingly, other than the group of three main characters Tim, Rymer and Jaffy,  I didn't find the rest of them  to be as well developed, always staying on the periphery of becoming real people to which readers could relate, maybe with the exception of Skip.

Other than those issues with the novel, I actually ended up liking Jamrach's Menagerie -- it may have been a bit on the shallow side at times but overall it was one of those books you want to call a "rollicking good yarn."  Seen in that context, it was a pretty good read.

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