Monday, 19 September 2011
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch **spoilers ahead**
This book is split into three parts. The first introduces us to Jaffy the boy, who was so childlike that he mistook an escaped tiger for a cat and went to stroke it on it's nose. He is then introduced to the owner who saved his life, Mr Jamrach (an actual person from the victorian era who did have a menagerie and who did rescue a boy from the jaws of an escaped tiger) who proceeds to offer him a job at the menagerie - the lowly task of cleaning the cages. Here Jaffy finds his best friend and at times worst enemy in Tim, who will encourage, push and dare Jaff the way only two boys can. By befriending Tim Jaff also meets Ishbel, his first love and Tim's twin sister.
This leads us nicely on to Part Two where the child Jaff has gone and is replaced with the more mature Jaffy that he perceives himself to be but we, the readers, can tell otherwise. Still friends with Tim and Ishbel Jaff finds himself wanting to prove his worth and showing that he's equal to Tim, who has just been told he's to join the hardened sea-dog Dan Rymer for an expedition to find a dragon. Whilst Jaffy himself doesn't believe there's a real dragon, they are all sceptical to begin with, he does feel riled enough to sign up as crew on the same whaling ship so that he can join Tim.
This is where it all truly begins, though you wouldn't know it at first. A mixture of hardened sailors and green hands on board, Carol Birch takes influences from the wreck of the Whaling Ship Essex (minus the angry whale) to cover the rest of the journey. With vivid descriptions of a whale hunt, capture and processing we are taken to a time of waiting; waiting to see if the dragon is real and what will happen to it if it's found. Then, with bad luck striking the ship, the crew find themselves facing the worst possible situation; split between two small whaling boats and food running low, they must find a way to survive knowing and having to accept that not all of them will.
Carol Birch uses a much older Jaffy to narrate the story, with occasional asides reminding us how brilliant hindsight is. She seems to excel at the descriptions of blood, guts, gore and chaos - making everything sound that much more interesting or engrossing - from the room of the silent birds to the stripping of a whale carcass and worse, it's all described to give the best effect. However, at times this did seem to work to her disadvantage, too much description and long, drawn out prose made me want to skip ahead a few pages, I didn't for fear of missing something vital, but the temptation was there.
This is a lovely, harsh, unrepentant look at a dying (some would say evolving) trade and the dangers that can unfold through the eyes of a boy who just wants to prove himself a man. I found it exciting to read, the descriptions of old London were beautiful in their stark reality. At times the emotions came out and I found myself tearing up not wanting it to be true. The ending was predictable in a way that you want it to be. I can see why this made the Man Booker Prize shortlist and have quite a few people in mind who I shall recommend this book to.