Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A Review of Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie

Firstly it needs to be said that reading this book is a commitment.  Do not expect to fly through it and be up until 3am in the morning unable to put it down.  The book contains a journey on which you are also taken.  With long days at sea, you too spend days working your way through and getting your money's worth!

Time and again, reviews of the novel rightly comment on the Dickensian influence on the writing, particularly in the first section of the novel when we meet the novel's protagonist: a small urchin of a boy, living in the depths of London's poverty with his hard working mother.  Just like Pip in Great Expectations, the boy's future is spun from a chance meeting.  However, instead of an escaped convict on a moor, it is an escaped tiger prowling the streets.

Jamrach's Menagerie tells the tale of the young boy Jaffy who, without much thought, reaches out and strokes an escaped tiger.  The decision proves to shape the course of his life. The tiger has Jaffy in his mouth but he survives.  Mr Jamrach, responsible for the tiger, takes the young boy on at his Menagerie.  Here he meets Tim and his twin sister who he falls in love with.

As Tim goes to sea, so too does Jaffy.  Throughout the treacherous journey we follow the peaks and troughs of their often one sided friendship. They travel on a whale boat in pursuit of the mystical dragon creature.  Be warned: the descriptions of the whaling are incredibly vivid and some readers have complained that there has been no prior warning of the graphic nature.  

However, here I will defend the author.  The book is written from an historical perspective and not from the comfort of the twenty first century.  It is a signal of the quality of writing that the author has castaway her own perspective to stick with that of the narrator of the novel.  Of course if we were to read a contemporary western novel on whaling we would expect an entirely different perspective but this novel is an historical one and so to should be the narration.

As the boys go to sea and start their journey into manhood, the author changes the style of writing.  After the whaling scene, the going is particularly slow and this had me thinking long and hard about what I value in literature.  I can understand why some readers have criticised the writing in this section and why some may not continue reading but for me it was a true reflection of the events that were unfolding.  I too was taking the long, laborious trip out to sea.  

The novel again changes when the dragon, a Komodo one to you and me, is caught.  Here was the point at which I did not want to put the book down.  Be prepared to live through the difficult events that take place at sea in every shade of their grim colours. The battle to survive is on and men are tested to the limits. Much like Lord of the Flies, the question arises as to exactly how far away humanity is from animals.

Some novels fill you with excitement in which you rush on desperate to turn the pages; the characters live with you; you feel as any minute you'll turn around to find them standing behind you; you know them intimately.  Jamrach's Menagerie is not this type of book.  However, it is just as worthy if not more so.

It has been a long time since a book really made me think.  Okay, so I had to do it quite often for essays in my degree but not many spontaenously really make me think hard and question.  This is what Jamrach's Menagerie did for me.  The descriptions of the scenes are absolutely without question the best I have ever read.  Never before have I read a book that has filled my nostrils with so many hideous smells! Never before have I so keenly seen and felt the destruction of a great giant.  Never before have I thought so hard about the writer's style of writing, or more particularly, the way in which the style changes.

Surely these are marks of a literary genius?  If the author could combine this with the page turning excitement and evocative characters found in other novels I truely think it would be unbeatable.  Jamrach's Menagerie is a novel to value and savour.  It is certainly not one to rush.

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