Lancastrian novelist Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie is a 19th century seaman’s yarn depicting the voyage from youth to maturity of one Jaffy Brown: an otherwise insignificant boy from London’s East End.
Fate pounces on Jaffy in the shape of a tiger, on the loose from Jamrach’s Menagerie of exotic creatures. Having survived and exhibiting a fondness for animals he soon finds himself embarking upon an eastern expedition with one of Jamrach’s chief suppliers, Dan Rymer, along with his friend Tim and the miscellaneous crew of the Lysander, a whaling ship.
Birch’s narrative now sails quickly into its main and most enjoyable section: the voyage. From here Jaffy is hurled into a number of set pieces against whales, ‘dragons’, treacherous oceans and strangely enticing environments.
We might raise small quibbles about the odd jaunty description: a waterspout incongruously playing ‘Simon Says’ throws us off course a bit, but otherwise the narrative is steady and detailed. For instance there are many literary allusions serving to bestow an air of sophistication, including supernatural visions reminiscent of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Speaking of literary comparisons, the most sizable for any novel set on a 19th century whaling vessel must be against the cetaceous Moby Dick. But, Jamrach’s Menagerie does not feel like Moby Dick. There is something decidedly less hoary and austere about it – on the whole. Whilst what may be a relief to many readers: the curtailment of exacting details that adorned Moby Dick like blubber, results in a far more accessible read. That’s not to say this novel doesn’t have the necessary detail to plumb the depths of human experience, because at points the writing is rather contemplative indeed.
Birch’s power is undeniable when pitched at the dark extremes of a personal or shared crisis. Her simple imagery is piercing, the protagonist’s introspections poignant, and accounts slurred by drunkenness and delirium touch upon the masterful. The final run of the voyage is particularly moving. The narrative slips into a vital and sinister vein, and with each paragraph’s ebb and flow Birch is firmly established at the oarlocks and adeptly rows.
Overall it’s a tale of men swept up by the tides of chance and fate, struggling against a wild and indifferent nature: the ocean, the world, perhaps even themselves. They’re sailors burdened by the inability to communicate their traumas and tribulations, fought at the very borders and foundations of what makes them human. Finally it’s a story of the journey through our trials, of becoming and enduring existence.
Only at its heart there lingers and pervades an implicit sadness. For Birch has not painted these characters as bright heroes but as fallible shadows. We may say this is all the more touching because in sufferance fallibility is akin to vulnerability. The tragedy is the human condition – our own.
Read more about Lancaster's Carol Birch in wikipedia