This is my review of Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch.
In what is mainly a seafaring yarn, the East End urchin Jaffy Brown pats an escaped tiger on the nose, lives to tell the tale, is taken up by the menagerie owner Jamrach, eventually sets out on a whaling trip with a detour to catch a dragon for one of Jamrach's clients, and suffers appalling privations in the company of his longstanding friend Tim. I was interested to learn that Jamrach was an animal dealer in real life, although in fact he was fined for letting a tiger carry off a young bystander. It was a bit of a let down when the menagerie faded out of the story quite early on.
For much of this book I felt I was reading an adventure story for teenage boys, admittedly with rather more sex, booze, child abuse and graphic descriptions of cannibalism than some parents would like. At times I felt bored, perhaps because the plot is rather slight to sustain a work of some 350 pages, and I found many of the characters quite sketchily drawn and unengaging. In particular, I was unconvinced by the relationship between Jaffy and Tim's twin sister Ishbel, and felt that the opportunity was missed to develop the complex triangular relationship between these three, which could have given the story a stronger emotional core.
What impressed me most and may justify nomination for a prize, are the vivid, poetical descriptions which pour out of the writer's imagination: the sounds and smells of the Victorian Thames, the lively market in Watney Street, the colourful ports visited on the voyage, the dissection of a harpooned whale after an exhilarating chase, the strange appearance of waterspouts over the ocean, in all their deadly beauty. I was distracted by the fact that Jaffy expresses himself with all the articulate lyricism of a mature female writer, and wonder whether the book would have been better written in the third person (we are told that Jaffy educates himself later in life and I suppose he could be modelled on Joseph Conrad). Also, use of the third person would make the final outcome more uncertain.
At times, the frequent references to people and animals vomiting and "voiding from both ends" become tedious. Some of the descriptions keel over into rambling excess. The style veers times between stream of consciousness and "telling rather than showing".
From Chapter 9, my boredom was replaced by a sense of unbearable oppression over some unremittingly harrowing, repetitive scenes. This may of course be intentional. Sometimes, the detail of shocking events seems almost included for effect, and the reader becomes desensitised to it as a method of coping. Again, this could be deliberate on the author's part. I don't think the moral dilemma in the climax of the book (which I can't reveal), and the key characters' reaction to it are explored enough. Also, in the final details of Jaffy's homecoming, which you know will be achieved since he is the narrator, some potentially moving scenes fall rather flat.
For an adult seafaring yarn which brings characters too close to nature for comfort, I would recommend Barry Unsworth's "Sacred Hunger".
P.S Having met Carol Birch at a book event, I would give her 5 stars for being so approachable and unassuming, and her readings aloud from "Jamrach" are very vivid and moving.