Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie may not be all that original – this ground has certainly been covered before. Young boy goes to sea, encounters adversity, ship goes down in a storm with only a few survivors, a few less survivors, and then a few less. Cannibalism to survive. So we’ve heard this tale before right? Yes, we have. But a familiar tale can still be compelling depending on the skill of the author, and Birch is particularly able when she writes about whaling.
Narrated by Jaffy Brown, the year is 1857 when we join his story as an eight-year old Londoner. His father died before he was born and his mother has had a series of no account men ever since. When they set off again after a row with the current abusive man, he and his mother meet a tiger. This was the seminal event that launched all things that followed. Jaffy explains,
I believe in fate. Fall of the dice, drawing of the straw.
Jaffy’s head ends up in the tiger’s mouth but he’s saved by Charles Jamrach. Jamrach happens to be tracking his tiger who has escaped from its crate. He styles himself a “naturalist and importer”. An importer of exotic animals. Jamrach feels guilty for being responsible for the boy nearly losing his life – not to mention his head. But he’s also impressed by the boys fearlessness and spunk. He offers him a job working alongside the boy who is to become his best friend, rival, comrade: Tim Linver, just a year older than Jaffy.
Charles Jamrach is based on the real life Johan Christian Carl (Charles) Jamrach (1815-1891). Jamrach supplied various birds, cockatoos, tigers, turtles, etc. to the London Zoo and the PT Barnum circus amongst others. The escaped tiger-boy tete-a-tete seems also to have been an historical fact, as evidenced by the statue that stands in the area of Jamrach’s London emporium. When Jamrach has been asked by one of his rich customers to supply a dragon that has been reported in the South Seas, he reaches out to one of his explorers, Dan Rymer. Rymer asks that Linver accompany him as part of his expedition, and Jaffy signs up as well. The ship happens to be the Essex, the ship that the Melville classic is modeled on. And Birch puts the reader right in the middle of the whaling life the back-breaking work, the smells, the long hours.
Birch taps the reader’s imagination a second and third time, when she writes about the dragon hunt, and then about the sinking of the ship and the survival saga on the high seas. Both suspenseful and detailed, and tension filled. When all is said and done, and as Jaffy relates his view on it all to Dan Rymer, he hearkens back to what he has felt all along.
“…there’s mo meaning in it, Just chance. Random, pointless. There’s no other way of seeing it.”
But Jaffy has come to a détente with this world-view. Even amongst all the pointlessness, there is a sense that, if this is it, best make the best of it. And here Birch waxes poetic as Jaffy sits amongst all his birds
You should hear my nightingales. Here in the seedy depths of a Ratcliffe Highway night, they carol like angels. There are no words for that high sweetness. They carol to me that all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well…yet I know the tiger’s mouth awaits. Come what may, whatever we many say, the tiger’s mouth awaits. Every little second is the last chance to savor the time that remains. How I swam here to this rock I’ll never know. A canary lands before me on a cherry branch, a jonquil, pure deep yellow.