Adventure and Danger on the High Seas

Jamrach’s Menangerie
Carol Birch

This three part novel, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, is an adventure/coming of age/survival story focusing on little Jaffy, a London street urchin in the Dickens tradition.

Part one of the book deals with Jaffy’s life as a young lad growing up on Ratcliffe Highway, a poor section of London. As a lad of eight, he meets a tiger walking in the street, and approaches to stroke its nose. The tiger is not amused, and scoops little Jaffy up in its jaws. Of course, he’s rescued, and his encounter with the tiger leads to a job working for the titular Mr. Jamrach, a procurer of exotic animals. Jaffy enjoys working for Jamrach. He makes a frenemy is Tim, a boy a year older who does things like lock him in a shop overnight, nearly getting Jaffy fired from his second job at Spoony’s Tavern. Jamrach takes these young boys under his wing, making sure they have boots and schooling.

After spending a few years tending the animals, the story fast forwards to Jaffy going on an expedition to help capture a dragon for one of Mr. Jamrach’s wealthy clients. Jaffy volunteers to go as to not miss out on any of the fun that Tim is sure to experience. The boys will travel on a whaling ship, the Lysander, where they are expected to help hunt and harvest whales until the reach the island where the elusive dragon may or may not exist.

Jaffy learns a thing or two about sailing, and the superstition on the high seas. Some of the crew starts to voice their worries, and Jaffy realizes that:

The superstition of sailors is no more than the lone howling of miles between you and dry land and home, making you know that you are a thing that can die.

He’s going to learn that lesson pretty intimately before he finds his way home again.

Compared to how engaging the previous section was, part three felt like a bit of a throwaway.  Okay, survivors head home, they try to adjust, ho-hum, yadda yadda. I get that Birch wants to show how a person adjusts to “normal” life after going through a life-threatening, traumatic experience, but it just fell flat. Maybe that’s inevitable? I don’t know.

Overall, this was a decent read. There were just a few little things that bothered me. First, when they’re in the lifeboats, it rains a lot. They’re dying of thirst – are they catching the rain? Hopefully yes, but there is no mention of it. I wanted to scream at the characters – you can drink that! Quit telling me how it feels falling on you and get to collecting it! Just a simple sentence or two would have kept me from getting distracted. Something like – “The measly two inches of rain they were able to collect did not go far in satisfying their thirst.”

Second – I kept thinking about the Dudley & Stephens criminal case from the mid-1800s. “The Custom of the Sea” did not protect you from the law, even if public opinion was on your side. I just don’t know how accurate Birch’s portrayal of this part of the story was.  Although I really didn’t mind being brought back to my first day of Criminal Law, where my friends and I sat drooling over our professor. Ahem.

Lastly, the story was heavily borrowed from other sources. I already mentioned the nod to Dickens, but it is also reminiscent of the Man Booker 2002 winner, The Life of Pi, and of course, there’s Moby Dick (Jaffy’s love interest is Ishbel, for goodness’ sakes), and the real life sinking of the Essex. Most stories borrow from or are inspired by others, but I just felt it bordered on heavy handed and obvious here – but that’s just me. Birch certainly took the inspirations and wove them together in her own story, and it’s a fair contribution to this type of adventure story. 
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4 thoughts on “Adventure and Danger on the High Seas

  1. I've read countless reviews of this one and it seems some love it and some hate it. I've had it on my shelf since March, and I do plan to finally read it this month. I'm curious to see where my thoughts fall. Great review!

  2. @nomadreader Thanks – I'll be interested yo know what you think. I don't feel I fall into a love it/hate it category, but it wasn't my favorite. It does take a lot to get me to really love a book, though.

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