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 story line 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. Recommended By Dianah H., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
SHORTLISTED for the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction
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.
"Powerful....Harrowing is a mild word to describe the sea voyage that follows." The Star-Ledger
"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." The Times (London)
"For a new salty adventure across the watery part of the world, you won’t find a better passage than Jamrach’s Menagerie....[It] will keep you up late and make you feel distracted whenever you have to set it down and leave Jaffy’s world behind." The Washington Post
"An exuberant tale....Irresistible....[Birch’s] words sing on the page." The Financial Times
"Beautifully written....Colorful....[An] adventure story, survival drama and coming-of-age tale." The New York Times Book Review
"Breathtaking....Magical....Melville meets Dickens....A moving, fantastically exciting sea tale." The Washington Post
About the Author
Carol Birch is the author of ten other novels. She has won the David Higham Prize for Life in the Palace, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for The Fog Line, and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 for Turn Again Home. Jamrach’s Menagerie is her first full-length novel to be published in the United States.