Jamrach's Menagerie


Carol Birch




Date Reviewed:

November 4, 2012

amarch's Menagerie is the life story of Jaffy Brown, a young boy growing up in the squalid streets of London during the time of the British Empire. A tiger escapes from a nearby menagerie, the Jamrach's Menagerie of the title, and it confronts young Jaffy Brown on a London street. The huge beast gathers the lad in its jaws, but because it has recently fed, the tiger doesn't gobble him up for a snack. The owner of the menagerie comes running, the tiger is recaptured, and young Jaffy escapes unharmed. Apparently Birch has based this part of her story upon a true event. Because he didn't show fear of the tiger, Jamrach offers to let Jaffy come and work at his menagerie, which he does, and thus the novel begins.

As he grows up working for Jamrach, Jaffy meets Tim Linver and his sister Ishbel. Tim is Jaffy's best friend when he isn't tormenting him with pranks. Jaffy loves Ishbel, but it is an unrequited love.

The best part of the novel is when Jamrach assigns Jaffy and Tim to join Dan Rymer to board the Grafton, a whaling ship commanded by Captain Musgrav, and sail to the south seas. There, Rymer will lead an expedition to capture a "dragon" and bring it back to London and bring Jamrach fame and fortune. The voyage aboard the Grafton is interesting and exciting. There are approximately twenty five crew on board, and Birch manages to describe the character of most of them, including the maddening, half-insane Skip. The bloody gruesomeness of whaling is described as Jaffy takes part in several dangerous hunts.

The whaling ship reaches the south seas, and sails from island to island, investigating rumors of the dragon. Finally, an island is chosen for investigation, and Dan Rymer, Jaffy, Tim and a few sailors put ashore for a thrilling hunt of the dragon. It is scary and exciting at the same time, especially when they are successful and manage to get the beast on board the ship in a giant cage. The presence of the dragon lays a creepy spell upon the crew, especially the excitable Skip. The novel changes from an adventure story to more of a horror tale.

Unfortunately for Jaffy, catastrophe strikes the whaling ship and it is sunk in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Birch models this part of her story on the true story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was sunk in 1819 and the surviving crew members resorted to cannabalism. Unfortunately, I had already read In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick the tragedy of the sinking of the Essex, so reading the same events in Jamrach's Menagerie didn't seem as exciting this time around. Things seemed more inevitable. (I thought the crew rescued two pigs off of the Grafton, but I only recalled them eating one of the animals, so I must have missed something.)

After the long ordeal, the end of the novel has a long winding down as Birch describes the rest of Jaffy's life, and the effect the adventure had upon him. It is kind of a slow ending. Overall, this was a pretty decent book. The cover contains a sticker saying it was nominated for the Booker Prize, but it did not seem good enough to be a prize winning novel to me.