Before I start to talk about Jamrach’s Menagerie, I just want to mention the blurb of the book. Anyone who would read the blurb, and indeed the first hundred or so pages of the novel would think that what you would be reading is a jolly old adventure story. It depicts Jaffy as a boy who leads an extraordinary life in London and then ventures off onto the high seas for his friend and boss, Mr Jamrach. This is true, to an extent, but it doesn’t quite paint the best picture about the second half of the book.
In the opening of the novel we meet Jaffy, who is born on the edge of London’s slums in the mid 1800’s. Jaffy describes how he was born twice, once in the room with his Mother and again in the jaws of a tiger. It’s in the jaws of said tiger that Jaffy meets the extrovert Mr Jamrach who imports wild animals for their sale in England. As it is his tiger, he apologises to Jaffy by giving him a job mucking out the animals.
This leads Jaffy and his friend Tim, after much playful meandering, to head out to the Dutch East Indies to catch a dragon. The boys are mentored by a hunter called Dan and they learn the ways of the world. You see… it’s all very traditional in terms of adventure. However, in the latter half of the book, things take a turn for the worse in Jaffy’s life and he must deal with horrific moments that will haunt him forever.
To tell you what happens would be to spoil the second half of the book, but I will say that you must tread lightly and if you have a queasy stomach or sensitive disposition, prepare yourself. My gripe with the blurb isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book, I did, but when you’re lured into purchasing a book by the blurb, you expect to get what it says on the tin.
Regardless, Jamrach’s Menagerie is a masterful piece of writing and Birch’s tale of Jaffy is both heartwarming and gutwrenching. It’s simple to describe the book as a coming of age story for the central character. We watch as Jaffy falls in love, leaves his home behind and sets off to become a man on the open sea.
Where Birch’s novel is at its best is within the interaction between characters. When Tim first bullies Jaffy you feel for him, you want them to be friends because Jaffy doesn’t have anyone else. When they are later inseparable, they become like brothers and their love for one another is lovely. The author uses dialogue to say very little, she uses small sentences to convey big feelings and emotions. Jaffy’s story is a beautiful one and one that highlights the beauty in people even in dark times.
There’s plenty here for those looking for adventure or those looking for a story about people and human reaction and emotion. It’s a book that is wonderfully crafted and entertains in both humour and suspense. Though the final third may not be to everyone’s liking, it is a book worth experiencing.