Jamrach’s Menagerie is a Janus-faced novel. It features, in its lengthy middle section, some of the most controlled, sustained, and effective, affective writing I have read all year. It also features, in the frame sections which book-end it, the sort of cod-Victoriana I’d immediately reject as immature in a genre novel. In part, this is a function of Carol Birch’s decision to forego any real narrative pivot – the book passes through the experience of its narrator without quite making a story of it – but it’s also an indication of where her passion lies. The book-end sections exist mostly to explain and explicate the perilous sea voyage at the book’s heart.
Jaffy Brown is an eight-year-old East Ender running errands for his neighbours in Victorian London when he is set upon by a tiger, freshly escaped from the private zoo of the novel’s title. Charles Jamrach, the proprietor of an emporium for wild animals and other exotica, is an historical figure, perhaps most famed for providing armadillo to the artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti; in Birch’s novel he acts as a sort of ring-master, bringing together the troupe and setting them to their performance, in this case a circumnavigation of the world with the aim of capturing what one assumes is a komodo dragon for one of his richer, more eccentric, clients.
In employing Jaffy, and in dispatching him and another young boy, Jaff’s friend and rival, Tim Linver, to the far flung corners of the globe, Jamrach embodies and enacts the novel’s key tension, between nature and commerce. In the Financial Times, Matthew Sweet suggests that Jamrach’s Menagerie is not a novel of ideas, and in this he has the kernel of a point – it is a book always most interested in evoking emotion and experience, rather than offering analysis; this is an adventure story, all songs, scrapes and derring-do. But Sweet is also a little unfair, since Birch also populates her work with a number of doublings – Jaffy and Tim, the tiger and the dragon, man and animal – which combine to ask questions about boundaries and circumstance. When in the jungle of a distant island hunting reptilian beasts, Jaffy is repulsed and horrified by their cannibalistic behaviour, the brute business of survival (in London, even the poor can survive on their wits, and on trade); when the ship on which he sails is wrecked, and Jaffy is cast away in a whaling boat for two months, he begins to see that man is not so different – that what seems in Jamrach’s study to be the civilised stuff of commerce is in truth merely a rarefied form of brute survival (both Jaff and Jamrach read Darwin).
That whaling boat. It is in the long stretch of pages in which Jaff and his fellow survivors bob around on an endless ocean, low on supplies and fortitude, that Jamrach’s Menagerie earns its keep. There are fantastic setpieces before it – the hunt of the dragon, and the killing of a whale (recalling Moby Dick, another disjointed novel inspired by a shipwreck) – but in her unblinking, unrelenting, unsentimental depiction of a small number of desperate men (there are two boats at first, sailing side by side), dying one by one, abandoning luxuried principles one by one, Birch undertakes a quite remarkable feat of novelistic art. For a hundred pages, we are adrift with her survivors, feel the almost interminable distance between them and salvation, but also never quite want to let go, never truly wish to leave them; each time we turn a page, and cannot quite believe that land is still not in sight. It is a sustained passage of quite remarkable bravery and skill – and earns the novel its spot on the Booker shortlist, whatever quibbles one might have with the novel’s less compelling parts.
“I’d been nearer to wild animals thousands of times,” Jaff remarks whilst hunting the dragon, “but here there were no barriers. This was real fierce beasts in the wild and nothing between me and them.” [pg. 157] This is more true than the boy knows at this point in the narrative, and though he will later be unable to think of the captive reptile as a dragon – not cowed and caged, deferential and cared-for – he will also learn the wildness that lies in mens’ hearts and beyond the confines of the artificial separation they have made between themselves and Nature. The most beautiful thing he sees in the course of the novel – in the course of his life – are the whirlpools which destroy his ship: “The three stood swaying, sinuous, spinning gloriously on our lee” [pg. 197]; Dan Rymer, Jamrach’s point-man and veteran sailor, tells Jaff that “when you’re killing a whale … you feel like you are the whale” [pg. 123]; and it is also “true there are bad spots, sounds of crying above the waves, wild winds yelling with the voices of drowned souls.” [pg. 248] In the course of the novel, the place of man and animal shifts constantly between beauty, brutality, and the symbiotic, as if the centre can never quite hold. Perhaps this accounts for the unwieldiness of some of its sections and of the novel’s structure. But out there, further into the novel, further away from its cloying, clogged opening and closing chapters, lies the open, unforgiving, sickly exhilarating sea.
For all its borrowings, meanderings and extraneities, this is a remarkable novel – and a contender for the prize.