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Jamrach's Menagerie
Cover of Jamrach's Menagerie
Jamrach's Menagerie
A Novel
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SHORTLISTED for the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction
A thrilling and powerful novel about a young boy lured to sea by the promise of adventure and reward, with echoes of Great Expectations, Moby-Dick, and The Voyage of the Narwhal.
Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of a nineteenth-century street urchin named Jaffy Brown. Following an incident with an escaped tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr. Charles Jamrach, the famed importer of exotic animals, alongside Tim, a good but sometimes spitefully competitive boy. Thus begins a long, close friendship fraught with ambiguity and rivalry.
Mr. Jamrach recruits the two boys to capture a fabled dragon during the course of a three-year whaling expedi­tion. Onboard, Jaffy and Tim enjoy the rough brotherhood of sailors and the brutal art of whale hunting. They even succeed in catching the reptilian beast.
But when the ship's whaling venture falls short of expecta­tions, the crew begins to regard the dragon—seething with feral power in its cage—as bad luck, a feeling that is cruelly reinforced when a violent storm sinks the ship.
Drifting across an increasingly hallucinatory ocean, the sur­vivors, including Jaffy and Tim, are forced to confront their own place in the animal kingdom. Masterfully told, wildly atmospheric, and thundering with tension, Jamrach's Mena­gerie is a truly haunting novel about friendship, sacrifice, and survival.
From the Hardcover edition.

SHORTLISTED for the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction
A thrilling and powerful novel about a young boy lured to sea by the promise of adventure and reward, with echoes of Great Expectations, Moby-Dick, and The Voyage of the Narwhal.
Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of a nineteenth-century street urchin named Jaffy Brown. Following an incident with an escaped tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr. Charles Jamrach, the famed importer of exotic animals, alongside Tim, a good but sometimes spitefully competitive boy. Thus begins a long, close friendship fraught with ambiguity and rivalry.
Mr. Jamrach recruits the two boys to capture a fabled dragon during the course of a three-year whaling expedi­tion. Onboard, Jaffy and Tim enjoy the rough brotherhood of sailors and the brutal art of whale hunting. They even succeed in catching the reptilian beast.
But when the ship's whaling venture falls short of expecta­tions, the crew begins to regard the dragon—seething with feral power in its cage—as bad luck, a feeling that is cruelly reinforced when a violent storm sinks the ship.
Drifting across an increasingly hallucinatory ocean, the sur­vivors, including Jaffy and Tim, are forced to confront their own place in the animal kingdom. Masterfully told, wildly atmospheric, and thundering with tension, Jamrach's Mena­gerie is a truly haunting novel about friendship, sacrifice, and survival.
From the Hardcover edition.
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  • From the book

    Chapter 1

    I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.

    Say Bermondsey and they wrinkle their noses. Still, it was the home before all other homes. The river lapped beneath us as we slept. Our door looked out over a wooden rail into the channel at the front, where dark water heaved up an odd sullen grey bubble. If you looked down through the slats, you could see things moving in the swill below. Thick green slime, glistening in the slosh that banged up against it, crept up the crumbling wooden piles.

    I remember the jagged lanes with bent elbows and crooked knees, rutted horse shit in the road, the dung of sheep that passed our house every day from the marshes and the cattle bellowing their unbearable sorrows in the tannery yard. I remember the dark bricks of the tanning factory, and the rain falling black. The wrinkled red bricks of the walls were gone all to tarry soot. If you touched them the tips of your fingers came away shiny black. A heavy smell came up from under the wooden bridge and got you in the gob as you crossed in the morning going to work.

    The air over the river though was full of sound and rain. And sometimes at night the sound of sailors sang out over the winking water--voices wild and dark to me as the elements themselves--lilts from everywhere, strange tongues that lisped and shouted, melodies running up and down like many small flights of stairs, making me feel as if I was far away in those strange hot-sun places.

    The river was a great thing seen from the bank, but a foul thing when your bare toes encountered the thin red worms that lived in its sticky mud. I remember them wriggling between.

    But look at us.

    Crawling up and down the new sewers like maggots ourselves, thin grey boys, thin grey girls, grey as the mud we walked in, splashing along the dark, round-mouthed tunnels that stank like hell. The sides were caked in crusty, black shit. Peeling out pennies and trying to fill our pockets, we wore our handkerchiefs over our noses and mouths, our eyes stang and ran. Sometimes we retched. It was something you did, like a sneeze or a belch. And when we came blinking out onto the foreshore, there we would see a vision of beauty: a great wonder, a tall and noble three-masted clipper bringing tea from India, bearing down upon the Pool of London, where a hundred ships lay resting like pure-bred horses getting groomed, renewed, readied, soothed and calmed for the great sea trial to come.

    But our pockets were never full. I remember the gnawing in my belly, the hunger retch. That thing my body did nights when I lay in bed.



    All of this was a long time ago. In those days my mother could easily have passed for a child. She was a small, tough thing with muscular shoulders and arms. When she walked she strode, swinging her arms from the shoulders. She was a laugh, my ma. She and I slept together in a truckle. We used to sing together getting off to sleep in that room over the river--a very pretty, cracked voice she had--but a man came sometimes, and then I had to go next door and kip in one end of a big tumbled old feather bed, with the small naked feet of very young children pushing up the blankets on either side of my head, and the fleas feasting on me.

    The man that came to see my mother wasn't my father. My father was a sailor who died before I was born, so Ma said, but she never said much. This man was a long, thin, wild-eyed streak of a thing with a mouth of crooked teeth, and deft feet that constantly tapped out rhythms as he...

About the Author-
  • Carol Birch is the author of nine other novels published in Britain. She has won the David Higham Award for Life in the Palace and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for The Fog Line, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 for Turn Again Home.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Carol Birch has created a marvelous piece of literary legerdemain with this tale of young Jaffy Brown, a street urchin in late-Victorian London who finds his place as a wild animal whisperer with a dealer in exotic beasts named Jamrach. Eventually, Jaffy and his best friend/closest enemy Tim ship out on a whaler with a side mission: to find and capture one of the dragons rumored to live in the South Seas. You've read Moby Dick, you know all about the Essex; you can guess much of what happens next, but Birch's powerful imagination makes it truly new and truly riveting, and Steve West's performance is astounding in its range and sympathy for even the nuttiest characters. He delivers a gripping narrative with mesmerizing skill. B.G. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award (c) AudioFile 2011, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    April 11, 2011
    This wracking maritime psychodrama follows a young boy from his humble beginnings as a child laborer in late 19th-century London to the South Pacific, finding bits of whimsy and beauty in a chaotic story. Jaffy Brown's bleak young life in the slums takes a bright turn when he is carried off by an escaped tiger and wins the notice of Charles Jamrach, a purveyor of exotic animals. Jamrach gives Jaffy a job, and soon the boy is sent on a years-long journey to the South Pacific, where he is supposed to find a dragon. It becomes slowly evident that the dragon quest, which is dispatched in an anticlimax, works as a macguffin for a dark and drifting tale of woe on the high seas as Jaffy's expedition is beset by disasters sinister and otherworldly. Birch's writing is assured and enticing, and she's especially talented at creating floating, still moments amid the action, often as Jaffy pauses to foreshadow or ruminate. Readers will spend much time wondering where this gratifyingly bizarre story is going, though Birch's writing chops do much to smooth the way.

  • The New York Times Book Review "Beautifully written....Birch has created an electric and cluttered cabinet of curiosities, sprinkled with keenly heard jangles of singsongy dialogue.....as the novel takes off on a three-cord braid of adventure story, survival drama and coming-of-age tale.....the spirit is that of a high-seas adventure novel, a Victorian book for boys...[before] Birch begins to turn down the lights. Now we get a survival story as the crew is lost at sea. This is the novel's strongest section....hallucinatory haze....function [s] as a brilliant device.....Probably the most interesting element of this novel is not its horrors, but its colorful milieu, the late-19th-century interest in naturalism....And in Jaffy, Birch has captured a boyish wonder in nature....As phantasmagoric as the mood of this novel gets, there is nothing in it that steps outside the bounds of reality, for it knows the real world is fantastic enough."
  • The Washington Post "Melville meets Dickens....Jamrach's Menagerie is a moving, fantastically exciting sea tale that takes you back to those great 19th-century stories that first convinced you 'there is no frigate like a book'....One of the magical qualities of Birch's story is that it gives that sense of Dickensian sprawl and scope even though it's spun in fewer than 300 pages.....Another wonder of this novel is sweet Jaffy's dynamic voice, which evolves from the wide-eyed enthusiasms of boyhood to the weary melancholy of middle age. In the early pages, everything comes to us teeming with the lush sensory overload of his 8-year-old mind, a riot of impressions and fresh metaphors.....But it's the novel's long second part that will keep you up late and make you feel distracted whenever you have to set it down and leave Jaffy's world behind.....Although Moby-Dick and Jamrach's Menagerie are very different novels, Birch holds her own with breathtaking descriptions of the harpooners in action, the gory rendering of the world's largest mammals and timber-splitting storms that crash down on the ship like giant ax blades. Even her monitor lizard seems capable of carrying the mantle of that deadly white whale. After all, a whale makes a great canvas on which Melville can project all his philosophical and theological concerns, but for bloodcurdling mayhem, nothing beats a riled-up Komodo ­dragon....While Melville wraps up his epic a few paragraphs after Moby-Dick's fatal strike, Birch pursues her tenderhearted hero into the madness that lies beyond mere survival. It's a harrowing voyage that subjects the young man -- and us -- to ghastly deprivations and unimaginable choices, "stuck between a mad God and merciless nature." For a new salty adventure across the watery part of the world, you won't find a better passage than Jamrach's Menagerie."
  • Christian Science Monitor "[An] unusual tale.....acclaimed British author Carol Birch is a literary original who writes with real assurance."
  • The Seattle Times "Vivid, gorgeous writing and the most curious literary voyage since Pi Patel found himself on a lifeboat with a tiger in Life of Pi."
  • Booklist, starred review "[An] almost unbearably suspenseful story of adventure and survival....as the story advances, a powerfully pervasive sense of melancholy takes hold of the reader, much as the tiger did young Jaffy, and one wonders if it will ever let go. Though Mr. Jamrach is based on a real historical figure, and Jaffy's voyage on that of the ill-fated whaler Essex, the story is entirely Birch's, and her principal characters are her own wonderful invention. She is, moreover, a brilliant stylist; reader her is like Christmas, every word being a gift to the reader. Though Birch is an established writer in England, this is her first novel to be published in the U.S. One fervently hopes it will not be the last."
  • New Jersey Star-Ledger "Powerful....Harrowing is a mild word to describe the sea voyage that follows."
  • Kirkus, starred review "A magical, literary novel puts a surreal spin on a coming-of-age seafaring saga....retains a sense of childlike wonder in its lyrical prose....Jaffy's experience cou
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A Novel
Carol Birch
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