Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Athena K's Review - Jamrach's Menagerie

This book should have been right up my alley.  Something about sailing ships and survival stories have always interested me - and this one had both!  Perhaps it is the distilling of the entire world into a small ship, a few people, to evoke the best and worst of human nature that I am interested in.  I also really enjoy ship-story symbolism ala the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Maybe that is why I feel slightly let down by Carol Birch's beautifully written story. 

Jaffy is an 1850's London street urchin with no prospects, who, as a young boy, survives an encounter with a tiger and enters the world of Jamrach's menagerie of exotic animals.  Jaffy befriends another young assistant, Tim, and together, a few years later, they set sail aboard a whaling ship bound for Indonesia in pursuit of what I understood to be a Komodo Dragon to add to the menagerie.  But the ship falls under a mysterious curse, and the sailors must endure horrible, awful hardships (and that's about all I can say about that without ruining the most gripping part of the book).

Even though in many ways the story echoed off one of my favorite Booker winners the Life of Pi, my complaint with the book is not plot-related.   It is that none of the characters, including and especially Jaffy, seemed well developed.  I had a hard time understanding what motivated most of their actions, the basis for their friendships, and their inner lives.  With more character development, the story could have been a coming-of-age story about Jaffy, or an analysis of the various ways in which we are all caged and free, or (and I think I would be most interested in this) a bromance about the relationship between Jaffy and Tim.  But because the characters were always distant and misty, it fell short of these. And perhaps because it was unclear what the message or purpose of the plot was, the opportunity for the rich and deep foreshadowing and symbolism that I hoped for never materialized.  Upon reflection, I think the dragon was just a dragon, which disappoints me.

But all was not lost.  While Carol Birch seems to lack in character development she excels in scene-setting.  Her locales are punctuated with bright colors, pungent smells, and rich detail.  I agree with others that the London she describes is compelling, as are the Azores, the ship, and the sea during a storm.  Even though I ultimately wanted more character, the atmosphere and gripping story resulted in a pretty good read.


  1. Reason for the uproar in the literary world? Thanks for sharing this review.

  2. I've heard such mixed reviews of this book, but I just don't think it's "my thing". Your review confirmed that for me!