12. ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ by Carol Birch

The Book:

[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

It took me a while to really get into this book. The first sentence – “I was born twice” – is a great hook into the story, but I wouldn’t say that I was engrossed at the start. Tracts of time are skipped over quickly, the threads of the plot hang together sometimes only tenuously. The saving grace was the language: sumptuously descriptive, it evokes Victorian London beautifully; especially the smells.

Jaffy, a street urchin, is saved from the mouth of a tiger by Mr Jamrach, who sells exotic animals captured abroad and brought back to his menagerie in London.  Jaf takes a job with Jamrach, and becomes friends with Tim, another boy working at the shop. When Tim embarks on a sea voyage to capture a dragon, Jaf goes with him. It’s interesting to read a book in which the main character is not the golden child. Tim is selected for the voyage and Jaf essentially tags along – the character whose voice we hear (and who we care for most) is not a Harry Potter-esque ‘chosen one’.

For me the book really begins at Chapter 7, with the capturing of the dragon. The pace quickens and the descriptions become almost addictively absorbing: “A mess of them like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass…”. When the sailors take the dragon on board the ship, time becomes confused – thanks, in part, to the increasingly loopy Skip. Then disaster strikes, and it becomes all but impossible to stop reading.

I recommend reading from Chapter 9 to the end in one go, because this is the best writing in the entire book. It seems that this is the real story Carol Birch wants to tell and, while she may have sacrificed some quality in order to get to it, any faults I found with the earlier chapters cease to matter. The character of Dan is amazing; Skip is lucky to get away with as much as he does; but what happens between Jaf and Tim is all the more poignantly shocking because it is based on truth. I read this section in almost one sitting, and it sent me into that rare, trance-like state that only some writing is able to do.

Stick with this book. It’s fine at first, but keep going and it becomes a story you will be unlikely to forget.

“Every given moment a bubble that bursts. Step on, from one to the next, ever onwards, a rainbow of stepping stones, each bursting softly as your foot touches and passes on. Till one step finds only empty air. Till that step, live.”

The Background:

I saw this book first on a TV programme about Man Booker Prize nominees, and then kept seeing it in bookshops. The cover is beautiful – covered in little, shiny stars – and the title throws up images of tropical creatures and strangely exotic lands.

In fact, I don’t think the title is particularly fitting. Jamrach and the menagerie do not feature very heavily, and I think the presentation of the book doesn’t prepare you for what is inside. It’s a far, far darker story than the cover might have you believe. And somebody needs to do something about that dreadful tagline: “When you go in search of adventure, travel carefully…” It misses the point of the book entirely.

Not a book to judge by its cover, however pretty the cover might be.


If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?

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One Comment on “12. ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ by Carol Birch

  1. Wow, it’s pretty remarkable how similar our experiences with this book are. I read this book because I like Victorian stories and, even more, I love nautical stories. Like you, I also took a while to get into this book, but once I got towards the end, it was utterly engrossing. I also read the entire last section pretty much in one go – you didn’t even mention the stunning plot twist that takes the book in much darker places than you ever think it will go. I loved the book.

What do you think?