4 October 2011

Review 42: Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (Man Booker Shortlist)

This is the third book from the Man Booker shortlist I have read and it has only made it harder to decide which my favourite is. So far all three have been really good and also really different making it challenging to compare them. We have had a contemplative thinkpiece, perhaps most typical of your Man Booker expectations and a modern novel about knife crime. Added to this is Jamrach's Menagerie which is a grown up adventure story that dips into darker waters and probably the book that least matched my expectations of it.

Jamrach's Menagerie is the story of Jaffy Brown who lives in Victorian England amidst the dirt and grime of Ratcliffe Highway until he is snatched up in the jaws of an escaped Bengal tiger. The owner of this tiger is Jamrach who buys and sells exotic animals and impressed by Jaffy's lack of fear (Jaffy is taken by the tiger only because he goes to try and stroke his nose) he offers him a job in his menagerie. This leads Jaffy onto the Lysander, a whaling boat where the crew is also trying to catch a 'dragon' where the story moves from a Sarah Waters-esque historical London the novels darker section.
I really liked this book, contrary to the feelings of the sixth formers and teacher am I'm doing a shadowing group with. I found it fast-paced, exciting, disturbing and very emotionally involving.

The novel is broadly divided into three parts: the first set in the grimy London backstreets, pubs and Jamrach's titular menagerie. I really enjoyed this first part and it reminded me of Sarah Waters style of describing the gritty reality of life for the poor. In fact the description of Tim and Ishbel's home strongly reminded me of Waters' description of Mrs Sucksbys house at the beginning of Fingersmith. I'm a fan of historial fiction so this part of the story appealed on this front but I also liked the quirky take on it with Jamrach and his menagerie. Jamrach and his menagarie is actually based on truth which adds anice element as the seemingly impossible image of a zoo of exotic animals on the London docks did actually exist. The incident with the tiger also happened as a Bengal tiger escaped and snatched up an eight year old boy who was snatched up by the tiger and rescued by Jamrach. I enjoyed the setting up of the relationships between Jaffy, Tim and Ishbel, the scene where they explore a local fair was a particulary high point.

The second part of the novel is on the Lysander, the whaling ship that Tim and Jaffy join with Dan Rymer, Jamrach' chief animal hunter. Although they help with he whaling duties, Tim, Jaffy and Dan have another mission - to find and capture a 'dragon' for an eccentric millionaire. This was the weakest section and dragged a little although was still very readable and important in setting up later events. Whilst not something that I would have thought interested me, I found the description of killing and gutting the whale fascinating, albeit somewhat stomach-churning.

The final part of the novel (aside from a few chapters at the end when Jaffy is back in London) takes a darker turn as the Lysander is wrecked by a storm and the survivors attempt to make it back to land in lifeboats. I don't want to give too much away as this part of the novel was exhilirating, upsetting and unexpected. It was inspired, in part by the story of Owen Coffin and the Essex, so Google him if you want to find out more but I would advise looking that up in hindsight and let the story unfold blind.

My shadowing group was not massively impressed with this novel but I must admit I really enjoyed it. Whilst it's not perhaps the most unique novel on the Man Booker shortlist although its inspirations are mixed and mashed up - it has elements of historical fiction, Moby Dick as well as real event. However, it is still involving and moving. The middle section could perhaps have been trimmed a little although I certainly was never bored whilst reading it, more just wondering where the story was going to go from there. It's difficult to go into details about some of the elements I really liked without spoiling the story of the plot which is a little frustrating

My colleague says that she didn't care enough about Jaffy (and Tim) to get involved but it really struck a chord with me emotionally; a moment towards the end of the novel had me literally shouting at the book and sobbing. I really warmed to Jaffy in an almost maternal sene and also really liked the character of Dan Rymer and his relationship with Tim and Jaffy. Birchs description of the dragons/giant lizards when they find them also stuck in my head as they slither over each other and the rocks and eat one of their own. The character of Skip also unnerved me with his otherwordly visions and attitude to a sailors life.

I really enjoyed this book; I had to leave it with about 50 pages to go as I was supposed to be meeting friends for dinner and I couldn't stop thinking or talking about the novel. I was disppointed that more of my shadowing group didn't share my opinion but I though this was an excellent historcal novel with hidden depths which was by turns exciting, interesting, strange and wonderful.

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