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Jamrach's Menagerieby Carol Birch
Part Dickensian childhood, part swashbuckling adventure, part horrific tragedy, Jamrach's Menagerie is unlike anything I've ever read. There were passages in this book that were so beautiful, I couldn't help but read them over and over again. I've rarely come across a novel that takes me to places I never expected — and this one did. It is based on the life of Charles Jamrach, a 19th century London animal dealer, and an actual event in which a nine-year-old boy was taken in the mouth of a tiger and carried off. The novel uses this event as a starting point, and as unbelievable as that beginning may be, Jamrach's Menagerie has much more in store and leaves the reader completely breathless as the storyline unspools. Carol Birch has the guts to tell the story in all its raw, disturbing glory, and it is utterly compelling. For a book that I wasn't much interested in reading, Jamrach's Menagerie delivered a giant sucker punch and left me wanting more.
Synopses & Reviews
A thrilling and powerful novel about a young boy lured to sea by the promise of adventure and reward, with echoes of Great Expectations, Moby-Dick, and The Voyage of the Narwhal.
Jamrach’s Menagerie tells the story of a nineteenth-century street urchin named Jaffy Brown. Following an incident with an escaped tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr. Charles Jamrach, the famed importer of exotic animals, alongside Tim, a good but sometimes spitefully competitive boy. Thus begins a long, close friendship fraught with ambiguity and rivalry.
Mr. Jamrach recruits the two boys to capture a fabled dragon during the course of a three-year whaling expedition. Onboard, Jaffy and Tim enjoy the rough brotherhood of sailors and the brutal art of whale hunting. They even succeed in catching the reptilian beast.
But when the ship’s whaling venture falls short of expectations, the crew begins to regard the dragon—seething with feral power in its cage—as bad luck, a feeling that is cruelly reinforced when a violent storm sinks the ship.
Drifting across an increasingly hallucinatory ocean, the survivors, including Jaffy and Tim, are forced to confront their own place in the animal kingdom. Masterfully told, wildly atmospheric, and thundering with tension, Jamrach’s Menagerie is a truly haunting novel about friendship, sacrifice, and survival.
"This wracking maritime psychodrama follows a young boy from his humble beginnings as a child laborer in late 19th-century London to the South Pacific, finding bits of whimsy and beauty in a chaotic story. Jaffy Brown's bleak young life in the slums takes a bright turn when he is carried off by an escaped tiger and wins the notice of Charles Jamrach, a purveyor of exotic animals. Jamrach gives Jaffy a job, and soon the boy is sent on a years-long journey to the South Pacific, where he is supposed to find a dragon. It becomes slowly evident that the dragon quest, which is dispatched in an anticlimax, works as a macguffin for a dark and drifting tale of woe on the high seas as Jaffy's expedition is beset by disasters sinister and otherworldly. Birch's writing is assured and enticing, and she's especially talented at creating floating, still moments amid the action, often as Jaffy pauses to foreshadow or ruminate. Readers will spend much time wondering where this gratifyingly bizarre story is going, though Birch's writing chops do much to smooth the way. (June)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Carol Birch is the author of nine other novels published in Britain. She has won the David Higham Award for Life in the Palace and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for The Fog Line, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 for Turn Again Home.
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