Jamrach's Menagerie Paperback – Jun 14 2011
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"Riveting . . . Birch is masterful at evoking period and place . . . Jamrach’s Menagerie is itself a teeming exhibition of the beautiful and the bizarre, and its serious ideas about the relationship between mankind and the natural world are communicated with such delicacy of touch that they never slow down the propulsive telling of the story or dim the brilliance of the prose." --Sunday Times
"An exuberant tale of sea-faring, exotic fauna and drunken shore leave . . . her prose has an irresistible vigour . . . her words sing on the page." --Financial Times
"An imaginative tour-de-force, encompassing the sights and smells of 19th-century London and the wild sea. It’s gripping, superbly written and a delight to all those who find real Victorian novels too dull." --The Times
"[Birch] conjures something far stranger and less immediately graspable than a straightforward recitation of facts would allow . . . a captivating yarn of high seas and even higher drama." -- Guardian
About the Author
CAROL BIRCH is the author of ten novels. Jamrach’s Menagerie was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, longlisted for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Galaxy National Book Awards. Birch won the David Higham Prize for Fiction for
Top Customer Reviews
When one day a Mr Fledge comes in and asks that he be supplied a dragon (most likely a Komodo Dragon) Jaffy, Tim and Dan join the crew of one of Mr Fledge's whale boats and set out towards the South Seas in pursuit of their quarry. What follows is a somewhat harrowing tale of torture, starvation and whole lot of pain as things go from terrible to worse in a story partly inspired by the true tale of the Essex (a story which also partly inspired another infamous book of whaling ships, Moby Dick).
It is an intentionally difficult book to read as the author tries to put you into the mindset of the protagonists as they go through some pretty extreme torment and the result is that some chapters go by a great deal slower than the rest (reading a chapter about the doldrums is liable to send one into them oneself). It is a very evocative book and as Jaffy, Tim and Dan suffer, I could feel their pain.
The book is far from perfect.Read more ›
If you want a good old yarn about a whaling ship and its crew on the high seas, the book definitely delivers. However, there are some long and gruesome sections of slow death and cannibalism that still haunt me and I could have done without.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The writing is simple but appropriate for the times and characters, a rare fusion of poetic writing and compelling narrative. I found many of the scenes emotionally powerful and the book reaches a satisfying yet complex conclusion. Late in the book the author does deal with an unsettling theme but I felt it was handled well, being neither prudish nor graphic, but advanced the story in a compelling fashion.
There are sailors that occasionally use the f-word which jarred me out of the historic reverie the author so skillfully wove. I suppose sailors really did talk like that but I prefer less reality since it is absent in the writing of the era. This is a minor complaint. Most won't be bothered by it. I suppose I lead a rather sheltered life but mention this for other readers such as myself.
From the title and some reviews which describe it as "rollicking" and a "romp," I expected a jolly story about a young man becoming involved with an exotic menagerie in Victorian London. It turned out to be very different - a complex, literary novel of the sea as our narrator sets off on a journey on one of the last of the whaling ships under sail to find and capture an exotic, possibly mythical, creature. I found it utterly enthralling, with much to say about the nature of friendship, of growing up, people's behaviour in desperate times, guilt and redemption and much more. It never preaches or philosophises, but presents us with a vivid picture of very real-seeming people, often in extremities of endurance and suffering, and asks us to consider them compassionately. There are incidents and characters here which will remain with me for a long time.
The book also captures wonderfully the atmosphere of Victorian London and of life on a sailing ship and whaler. Melville, Patrick O'Brian and others have set a phenomenally high standard for novels of the sea, whaling and the age of sail but I think Carol Birch, while wholly different from either, matches them for believability and her ability to transport the reader into her world. I thought that the description of the pursuit, killing and processing of a whale was simply brilliant, for example, even though it was familiar from other novels. There were several other passages which were just as good.
The prose was a real pleasure to read. It has an individual voice, is extremely readable and manages to convey subtle and complex emotions and situations remarkably effectively. There are times when it is almost poetic and at others verging on hallucinatory, but is always exactly appropriate to the story. I have not read any of Carol Birch's previous novels, but I certainly will now.
Given what I expected, I am surprised to find myself enthusing so strongly about this book, but I genuinely thought it was outstandingly good and I recommend it extremely warmly.
A fellow with second sight warns Jaffy and the rest of the whaler's crew that they'll bring on bad luck if they capture the dragon and take it on board the ship. The crew should have listened. Time itself changes with the Ora on board; they enter "dragon time." Their thoughts become muddled; Jaffy says "It was like an earthquake in the landscape in my head, and I no longer knew what I could count on." In light of the warning, it's obvious that disaster will strike; it's just a question of when it will happen and how bad it will be. It's bad.
Carol Birch's vivid writing brings this thrilling story to life. Reading the novel was like watching a movie in high definition -- better than that, really, given the clarity that language provides. Birch's style alternates between graceful and gritty, as the scene demands. Part seafaring adventure, part survival story, part tale of the supernatural, with elements of a morality play and psychological study, Jamrach's Menagerie delivers an exhilarating plot and convincing characters. As the climax nears, the story's intensity heightens; at one point I was reading through half-closed eyes for fear of what might happen next. Parts of this novel have been done before (to some extent, the characters' interaction reminded me of my favorite short story, Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat") but I don't think it's ever been done quite like this. Jamrach's Menagerie is powerful, sometimes gut-wrenching, but also insightful. There are traces of a love story here and even a coming-of-age story, but ultimately deeper themes prevail as characters confront their fears and struggle with unimaginably serious moral choices.
Sensitive readers (and those who screen books before letting their children read them) should know that there is a fair amount of salty language in this novel. It's all appropriate to the story (angry or frightened sailors don't respond by saying "oh gosh"); I mention it only because some readers will want to know of its existence.
The book is bleached of emotional charge. None of the passionate emotions, whether anger or love, that you expect in an adventure story. Which is fine, playing with genres is always acceptable, and when successfully executed, very satisfying. But with such a stereotyped story line it raises the question in the mind of the reader: what are you offering as a replacement to the standard execution of a storyline lifted from a well grooved genre?
And the answer is: pretty writing, though somewhat florid for my taste. The story is well constructed and it is certainly well written. But that simply isn't enough. Making the reader slog through more than 100 pages in the whaling skiff is cruelty. The members of the crew die slowly, boringly, and still it just goes on and on. Except for Tim, this reader just didn't care. The other characters are inadequately drawn for the reader to empathize very strongly (particularly since the reader is by this point in a semi-coma of boredom). And the big drama of who is the murderer and murdered? Very poorly handled. No suspense but lots of melodrama. When the narrator visits Tim's sister and mother after returning he is uncertain how he will be greeted. So is the reader, because these two characters have been presented as cardboard figures, and thus it is difficult to gauge any response they might have.
The most annoying feature of the book was the voice of the narrator. It sounded like a well educated female, not a poorly educated male. Example: "the shell-pink enormity that was my listening ear newly formed in the amniotic fluid."
I would give this 2.5 stars if available.
In Carol Birch's brilliant, compulsively readable new novel, Jamrach's Menagerie, a dragon is the object of an eccentric quest. Rescued from the jaws of a tiger by its owner, Mr Jamrach, Jaffy Brown becomes an employee of his menagerie, feeding and tending the animals. His closest friends are his fellow employee, the irritating but lovable Tim Linver, and Tim's erratic sister Ishbel. When a client of Mr Jamrach hears rumors of a dragon on a distant island, Jaffy and Tim are eager to join the expedition, see the world, and become men. What they see, and what they become, is more breath-taking, and more horrifying, than they could ever have imagined.
The first half of Jamrach's Menagerie feels more like a dazzling but shallow adventure, a thrilling yarn, than a literary novel. Birch crafts exquisite descriptions of the sailor's life and of isolated native communities that maintain a poetic rhythm without betraying Jaffy's childlike excitement, but the romantic atmosphere is unreal, creating a sense of escapism rather than insight into real life. At the book's midpoint, events take a darker turn, and the prose, while still exquisite, becomes bone-chillingly so.
What happens then, which I would rather not reveal but can't help hinting at, is a frequent subject of human shock and fascination. Rarely, however, is it described with the psychological intensity Birch manages, an insight into deprivation and delusion that makes the book painful to read but impossible to put down. Her imagery, which has always had a jagged quality, a rise and fall of phrases that somehow combined into vivid portraits, becomes disjointed and nightmarish, echoing Jaffy's mental collapse. The haunted world he envisions may only be a fever dream, but it's also a powerful metaphor for the realities in the shadow of which all people live their lives, trying to ignore how much they have to lose, and the things they might do to hold on to the little that remains.
There is, in the end, a return from this darkness, but complete redemption is impossible, and Birch offers no easy answers. It has drawn back a curtain to reveal that we are all animals, susceptible to brute responses that should break our minds but are instead brushed aside like nothing. Like birds, like tigers, like dragons, we may one day find our habitats invaded and strangers in our midst. We may, despite our best efforts and impulses, become trapped, for a time or forever, in Jamrach's Menagerie.