Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

This is one that was short listed for the 2011 Booker eventually losing out to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

I picked it up because of its intriguing title and rather droll cover. Don’t you love a book with a great cover? It’s a good read, although at times the descriptive prose tended to excess. It took me a while to get used to the author’s style and her often abrupt prose. It suits the subject matter fine though which for the most part deals with sailors and their voyages. She’s cleverly woven a coming of age story into a sailing background, which is very reminiscent of Life of Pi. But while Life of Pi has a surreal quality to it, what with the charismatic Richard Parker, this book is firmly rooted in reality. And reality is so often ugly, an ugliness that Birch describes with vivid, if occasionally noisome attention to detail.

There are parts of the story which were extremely tough for me to read, softie that I am! The ship-wreck and its aftermath, the dragon hunt & escape, the whale-killing – all very graphic, disturbing and yet imbued with a strange and terrible beauty. The other parts I enjoyed, especially her character descriptions. The description of Jaffy’s early days, his drive, his ambition and his early naiveté were very endearing. His friendship with Tim and Ishbel, his joy at working at the Menagerie and the descriptions of the animals themselves along with the emotions they might have been feeling were spot on. It was easy to understand how young Jaffy was enamoured of the animals and especially the birds, because through her prose, the author made me fall in love with that rather seamy, chaotic place too. I could smell the smells and see the looks as it were!

I enjoyed the descriptions of ‘life-at-sea’ too. Birch paints pictures with her vivid prose. Descriptions are obviously her forte. So it’s easy to imagine a ship leaving harbour, peopled with seasoned sailors, their eyes wise & sorrowful, and young boys out for an adventure, eyes bright and unafraid, untouched and unclaimed as yet by the wily sea. Easy to see her pitching on the high seas as her crew struggle for survival and battle the ocean in all its fury. And easier still to watch her anchored in a calm harbour where the beaches are lined with palm trees and where at last land offers respite, refuge and recreation. Especially loved the description of three hurricanes that dance on the water before all hell breaks loose and a definitive scene early on in the book that I’ll simply call ‘Jaffy & the Tiger’! Brilliant stuff!

But it’s not all about the descriptions, there’s a story here too, of love and friendship, of courage and sacrifice, of leaving and being left behind, of forgiving and being forgiven, of humanity and animals and whether they are as different as we like to think. I was a little confused by the choice of title, especially when the said Menagerie is absent for a good part of the story, until I realized that this is indeed a Menagerie, literally of animals and symbolically of humans, all thrown together by fate and circumstance to get along as best they can or die trying.

Although I cannot but help compare it to Life of Pi, which was for me an easier read and remains my favourite book on a similar subject, Jamrach’s Menagerie is absorbing, intelligent and thought-provoking. In short it’s everything a great read should be!

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