Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch, Doubleday 2011.
Jaffy Brown has lived all of his short life among the streets and sewers of London. Everything changes one day when he encounters a tiger in the street. Ignorant of what the beast is and compelled to touch it (“Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose”) he finds himself picked up in its mouth and dragged away, before he is rescued, unharmed.
The tiger’s (very apologetic) owner is Charles Jamrach – and so far, this is a true story. Jamrach did own a menagerie in Victorian London; in 1857 one of his tigers did escape and carry off a young boy and the boy did live to tell the tale. A statue in Wapping commemorates the incident.
Jaffy goes to work with Jamrach where he discovers a talent for looking after animals. This brings him into an often-antagonistic friendship with a co-worker, Tim Linver. An incident early in the book, where Tim locks Jaffy inside Jamrach’s shop for the night, is the means of introducing Jaffy to Tim’s family – including a sister, Ishbel, with whom Jaffy immediately falls in love.
This first part of this Booker-shortlisted book has been described in almost every review as ‘Dickensian’. It is accomplished, clearly the work of an extremely talented writer, but they are also in many ways (and in defiance of the title) the least interesting part of the book. The real story begins when Dan Rymer, who supplies Jamrach with his animals, receives a commission to hunt for a dragon that is rumoured to exist in the islands of Indonesia. Rymer, along with Jaffy and Tim, joins the crew of a whaling ship bound for the region. And it is the sea-bound sections of Birch’s book that raise the novel from check-the-boxes Victoriana into brilliance.
Jamrach’s Menagerie is very clear about its sources. At more than one point in the story characters refer to the Essex, the sunken whaling ship that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick.
Certain things I remember. The fo’c’s’le, Gabriel saying: “There’s an evil spot out there, they do say.”
Sam smiling. “Don’t frighten the little ones,” he said.
“Everybody knows about it.”
“I don’t,” I said.
Gabriel looked at me. “No? The place where things happen. Where the Essex was lost, and more since. A cursed spot upon the ocean.”
Everyone knows about the Essex, and all the others. It’s legend on the whale ships. It’s something of a joke.
Specific reference is made to Owen Coffin, a teenaged boy aboard the Essex who was sacrificed and eaten by the remaining crew after the shipwreck. “’I knew a man knew Owen Coffin as a lad,’ said Gabriel. ‘Sailed with his father, he did. Said Owen was a nice boy, and a good sailor like his dad.’” Like Melville, Birch draws on these stories for her own, and the references work to foreshadow events to come.
The whaling sections are brutal; the chase almost a seduction and the killing and harvesting utterly grotesque. It’s a relief to learn that all this is nearly at an end.
My clothes had dried upon me and become a second skin, and the bones and organs of the whale floated alongside the ship in a great snapping of sharks and a feasting of seabirds. I stood with Gabriel looking down. Morning had come.
“Take it all in, son,” he said. “Doubt you’ll get the chance again.”
“The whaling’s done for,” he said, and grinned.
“No call for the oil no more. It’s all this new stuff now. They’ll always need the bone for the ladies’ stays, but they won’t be wanting all this oil no more.”
“What new stuff?”
“Oil under the ground,” he said.
This is not the only indication that the book is set at the end of an era. The quest for the dragon reminds one of the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here Marlow, the narrator, describes his childhood fascination with maps.
I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, `When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off.
As a child, Jaffy’s lack of knowledge made of the tiger “a mythical beast”. Jamrach’s Menagerie is set at what seems like one of the last moments when it is possible to discover dragons. There are still spaces in the world that are largely unknown., The sort of knowledge with which Rymer and his companions approach the capture of the dragon (just a rumour of a rumour of a tale told by a sailor) is the most the characters have to go on. Yet this will change. At the beginning of the book Jaffy is dreaming of dragons. By its end (in a reference that would otherwise be another predictable nod to the Victorian setting) he is reading Darwin.
But for the book the dragon occupies a strange in-betweenness, halfway between the mythical creature of Jaffy’s imaginings and the scientific truth. The ‘dragon’ or ‘Ora’ is, of course, a Komodo dragon and nothing like the dragons of Jaffy’s fancy (“It’s not a dragon,” I said. “It’s like he always said. A big crocodile”). But the harsh reality of science does not entirely take us out of the world of fantasy. The ‘dragon’ may not have wings or breathe fire, but there is something supernatural about it. “How was it we became so afraid of the dragon? Not just as anyone would be afraid of a wild animal with claws and teeth, but as if it was something more”. The “something more” that is attributed to the dragon (which seems to blight the fortunes of everyone on the ship. After its capture the ship slips into an alternate state, a nightmarish sense of stasis that seems a tribute to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. “Time changed”, as the narrator puts it:
And on and on in that dream—seven dark days and nights that had begun to feel eternal. The superstition of sailors is no more than the lone howling of millions of miles between you and dry land and home, making you know you are a thing that can die. Superstition, dark, spiky, high stepping, stalked with cloven foot upon our decks. And when superstition high-steps on a lone sea deck, far and far from every strand, as the old songs say—then, oh then …
Not just when sleeping, not just half asleep on my feet at the masthead, not just tipsy-drifting with a head full of gummy warmth, but always, every conscious second I was beautifully, startlingly afraid, with a fear crisp and invisible as the honed edge of a fine blade.
The quiet horror builds up over chapters in which nothing much actually happens – then climaxes as something does. But the sense of unreality that sets in in these chapters continues for most of the book.
A series of tragedies follows. The nature of these tragedies has been evident throughout the book – if the multiple references to the Essex had not been enough, conversations about cannibalism in the islands (and an unpleasant scene where komodo dragons feed off a dead member of their species) and the conviction that the ship is cursed would make it all obvious. But through the bleakness, the dark humour as the number of survivors in the captain’s prayer decreases day by day, there’s a dreamlike quality to everything. And of course we always know that our narrator will survive.
Jaffy is an odd narrator. Birch has his voice shift constantly between those of a child and of an educated adult looking back. Were this a particularly plot-driven book, this would be a complete giveaway of the ending. Jaffy is also entirely too good, which is a little disappointing; this may be a subjective retelling, but nothing about the plot suggests that its narrator is ever anything but blameless. The only thing that keeps him interesting despite this is the fellow feeling for the animals he encounters the whale, the tiger, Jamrach’s various creatures. Even the dragon – he is repulsed, afraid, and sometimes refers to it as a demon, yet Jaffy is able sometimes to identify with it.
A line from the Book of Job is quoted twice in the book; I am a brother to dragons and a companion of owls. By the end it seems to typify Jaffy, who is by this point running his own aviary. The final sections of the book, chronicling Jaffy’s return to London and his later life are rather perfunctory and disappointing. There are awkward encounters with families and an (in the circumstances) improbable recommencement of a romance. There is more Victoriana: a reference to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a client of Jamrach’s; Birch resists the temptation to namecheck another client, the far more colourful P.T. Barnum). It’s never bad – at her worst Birch is still an accomplished writer. But it lacks the magic of the seafaring chapters of the book.
Jamrach’s Menagerie is on this year’s Man Booker shortlist and it thoroughly deserves to be there. But if it wins it will be on the (considerable) strength of that central section alone.