Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: JAMRACH'S MENAGERIE, by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie, by Carol Birch. Published 2011 by Canongate Books. Literary Fiction.

So, I read Jamrach's Menagerie for my book club, which focuses on books that were nominated for or won the Man Booker Prize. Jamrach's Menagerie was nominated for the prize in 2011 when it was also longlisted for the Orange Prize. The story is about the coming of age of Jaffy Brown, a London boy who gets a job with a zookeeper and is sent on a mission on a whaling vessel, to help bring back a dragon.

The story starts as a lively and entertaining vision of 19th century London life. Jaffy knows the city inside and out, and London is almost a character in the book, so vividly does Carol Birch bring it to life. Jaffy takes right to working with animals and befriends Tim and his sister Ishbel, a beautiful and precocious girl. Charles Jamrach is a larger than life figure and Jaffy loves his work. Life on the boat is hard but Jaffy does his best to adjust. He gets to know the ship, gets to know about whales and whaling, and he meets Dan Rymer, who will have a lasting impact on him in ways he can't imagine right now. Finally they arrive in the south Pacific, and face the dragon.

What happens from here I won't tell you, but it's unforgettable. It's also grisly and grim, and we only have hope because we know Jaffy survives. Carol Birch spares us no detail of the horrors that await these men. I skimmed parts of it, because it was a little too gruesome for me.

It takes about an hour to get from my apartment to the meeting location of my book club, and unfortunately I fell asleep and missed my departure window that Sunday. Just as well. The moderator said she chose this book as a lighter selection after Richard Flanagan's graphic The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The first 3/4 of the book qualify as light but the final quarter eclipses it completely and it's just about dark as dark gets. After the trip Jaffy tries to return to some semblance of normal life, but nothing will ever be the same. I don't feel quite the same either after finishing this deeply disturbing book.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

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