Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie
Canongate, 2011

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

This is a true story: while being delivered to Jamrach’s menagerie near Ratcliffe Highway, a Bengal tiger escaped. “An eight-year-old boy who walked up and patted it on the nose was knocked down and carried away in its mouth, but escaped unhurt after Jamrach jumped on the tiger’s back.”

That eight-year-old boy of the historical record becomes Jaffy Brown in Carol Birch’s tenth novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie.

She recounts this and one other historical snippet in the acknowledgments, which appear at the end of the novel, after it’s become impossible to believe that it’s only Jamrach who was real, not Jaffy Brown.

And, yet, Jaffy does seem larger than life somehow. In 1857, at eight years old he is in the mouth of a tiger and emerges, alive. Which impresses Mr. Jamrach and leads him to offer Jaffy a job looking after the animals in Jamrach’s menagerie: the marmosets and the cockatiels, the ape and the baby elephants, and all the others besides.

And, so, incredibly but brilliantly, Jaffy moves from a world in which he cannot afford a pair of boots into a world of amazing things (and footwear). Not the least of which is that, by eleven years old, he can read and write, because Mr. Jamrach needs his boys to be able to take things down and read off lists (including the lists of desirable specimens that his wealthy clients are seeking for their collections). And then, by fifteen, he is off to sea, in search of a dragon.

So, yes, Jaffy does seem larger than life. (Do take a moment: indeed, dragons.)

But Carol Birch establishes credibility by immersing readers wholly in Jaffy’s existence.

His work in the menagerie shapes his view of the world, in both details and in broad strokes. His friend, Tim, has small “baboon wrinkles” at the sides of his nose, a pole is long like a stretched horse, and a whaling ship’s masts and yards and sails are like the “web of an insane spider against the sky”. And Jaffy develops an inherent sense of compassion for animals of all sorts (two- and four-leggeds) that could, in the hands of a Hollywood director, lead him to be depicted as The Tiger Whisperer.

Adding to the verisimilitude of the tale is the attention paid to the novel’s settings, from the docks to more exotic scenes (which readers should discover in Carol Birch’s prose for themselves):

“The ginger beer was good and sharp. I smelled fish, and lavender. A sugar wagon rolled by groaning, a knock-kneed brown horse between the shafts. The sound of hammering and singing was carried on the breeze, and the sun was warm.”

Readers’ senses are regularly and thoroughly engaged in Jamrach’s Menagerie. Sometimes in unexpected ways. “I loved my ma. To me, she would ever and always be a warm armpit in the night.” An uncommon but, upon reflection, affecting way of expressing this connection, given the era and characters’ social class.

There are other images of comfort and memorable relationships, particularly that between Jaffy and one other, but although the strength and depth of feeling is sometimes expressed directly, it is more often subtly drawn through Jaffy’s surroundings.

“We crept below, through the snoring room where we had caroused last night, past the sleeping snout of a black pig asprawl before the quietly ticking fire, past coiled cats and twitching dogs, and hens breast by swelling breast along a stone shelf.”

But not all the imagery and sensation in this story is warm and comforting.

Sometimes it is beautiful but unsettling. “When the lightning flashed it was beautiful, silver echoes on a world washed out, on mast and spar and binnacle, on the great, thrown-out cloth of the sea.”

And sometimes it is simply unsettling. “It was the kind of smell that makes walls cringe and plants curl and die.”

Carol Birch’s use of language is equally skilled in drawing more complicated scenes. “A breath like the scraping of a nail on slate, exhaling into silent infinity.” There are devastating bits in this story. Haunting scenes that are all the more powerful for the author’s skill in drawing readers into them before their dimensions are fully understood and realized.

Jamrach’s Menagerie will certainly be a satisfying read for readers who enjoy an adventure with a historical setting, and those who appreciate that the thrill of discovery bears a corollary, the ever-present possibility of failure and devastating loss.

Jaffy Brown’s story comes with beautiful and moving and tragic and horrifying elements. It took me to unexpected places, and even though I hated some of them, I will sign up for any other expeditions that Carol Birch is hosting: she has something I’ve been missing, something I want in my collection.

What do you think?

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 15 of 20 (Carol Birch)

Originality Narrator emerges from the mouth of a tiger
Readability Strong
Author’s voice Visceral, Engaging
Narrative structure Chronological, historical
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Accomplished author, her tenth novel

Companion Reads:
Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi (2001)
Katherine Govier’s Creation (2003)
Charles Dickens Great Expectations (1861)
Alissa York’s Effigy (2007)