You could say I read Jamrach’s Menagerie because of how beautiful the cover is and because of how fun it is to say the title out loud! But it was also shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and available to borrow from the Carnegie Library (CLP) for my Kindle. It was definitely reminiscent of a Dickens novel, with rich, intricate writing, and was the longest 304 page book I’ve read in a while.
The story revolves around Jaffy Brown, a poor street urchin living in 19th century London. One morning while running an errand, Jaffy meets a tiger the street and almost gets eaten alive when he walks up to the tiger and pets him. The tiger’s handler, Charles Jamrach, a wild animal dealer, recognizes Jaffy’s bravery and connection with animals and offers him a job as an assistant. Jamrach’s store feels half zoo, half Madame Tussaud Wax Museum and half carnival-like. While working there, Jaffy befriends Tim, another young assistant of Jamrach’s.
Then Jamrach’s asked to find and capture an elusive dragon-like creature for a client (it has to be a Komodo dragon based on how it’s described) and before we know it, Jaffy and Tim are aboard a three-year long whaling expedition with the hopes of finding and capturing the dragon in the East Indies. When they finally capture one, it seems to bring them bad luck and eventually gets away. Then their ship sinks and only a handful of sailors manage to survive in rescue-boats, including Tim and Jaffy, but are they’re lost at sea. What had been a light-hearted book at first, certainly takes a turn when the boys go to sea and then takes another turn when the ship sinks.
Jaffy’s relationship with Tim plays a significant role in the story. While Tim’s a friend to Jaffy, he’s also jealous of him and his role at Jamrach’s, and tries to keep the upper hand in their relationship. When in London, both boys are poor, essentially fatherless and help support their moms. It’s much of the same on the boat, but they also both enjoy a sense of freedom and maturity. It’s interesting to see how their relationship develops when they’re at sea…and what will prevails, friendship or survival?
Overall, Jamrach’s Menagerie is filled with rich, beautiful writing. It was very Dickens-esqe, in the writing, characters and even the setting, both in place and time. As good as the overall book was, the first part was long enough to set up the book as if it would all take place in London, and then the boys went to sea and that part of the story was almost a book in itself. You realize that the beginning of the book is a glimpse of Jaffy’s childhood and as the book progresses, we watch him enter into adulthood. It felt long because of the writing style, but also perhaps because I was reading it on a Kindle. You have to seriously be up for reading this book–but it’s worth it if you do.