Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 31, 2011

In matters of literature covering sea faring traditions and adventures, Indian literary landscape is surprisingly disappointing (or is it my ignorance?). Surprising because there is no reason for it to have been so. Historically, India had some great maritime traditions and kingdoms, evolved ship building industry and a strong heritage of sea trade with various parts of the world. Yet none of this became a basis for producing literature of the nature that one gets see in English and American writing. I suspect that this rich history has been simply lost to the indiscipline of poor documentation and the debilitating impact of British rule in India.  As an Indian reader, I long to have vigorous writing of the nature of Moby Dick, Treasure Island, The Middle Passage, Lighthouse, the oeuvre of Conrad and the generic pirate literature to have come out of India. Notwithstanding the origins, I have always enjoyed books dealing with adventures on high seas and into my reading list of sea adventures, I can now add Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie

The book caught my attention after it made into the Booker shortlist of 2011

Set in Victorian London, Jamrach’s Menagerie is an expansive and imaginative story woven around a real life character Jamrach – an animal trader and Jaffy Brown – a child whom Jamrach saves from the jaws of a royal Bengal tiger belonging to his menagerie and fosters him for a career in managing a menagerie. Instead, Jaffy along with his friend Tim opt for a career of sailing on high seas in a whaling ship leaving behind his mother and Tim’s sister Ishbel whom Jaffy loves. The ship itself has an additional commission of capturing dragon like reptiles found in South Seas. The crew is successful in its mission but gets shipwrecked while returning to England losing their catch and in succession the lives of crew members in circumstances which are inhuman, degrading and hopeless. The lack of food and water force the sailors to draw on lots to eliminate members of the crew to conserve resources. Jaffy is forced to kill his close friend Tim with his own hands and use his carcass as food. In near hopeless conditions Jaffy and another sailor friend of his return to England via the coasts of South America. Jaffy marries Ishbel and settles down for a life as a bird tamer running an aviary of his own but not before making multiple trips on high seas. The lure of the sea remains with him like the song of a siren

The novel starts on a lighter note dealing with the sights, smells and sounds of the poverty of Victorian London, the pleasant bonhomie of Jamrach, the camaraderie of men in his menagerie but gradually descends into a world of debilitating horror of high seas with a deep sense of desperation against the indifference and adversity of nature, unhinging of the minds, madness, hallucinations and the final descent into cannibalism. Even in these adverse conditions a part of the crew displays streaks of indomitable spirit, dignity of a code and a sense of fairness. Birch does a credible job of portraying this world of horror with well researched facts and a strong imagination.

However, there are a couple of aspects of Birch’s writing that struck me as unusual. First of them is the language of the characters: since the setting was Victorian England, I expected the language to reflect turn of phrases with an inherent sense of that bygone era. Instead I found that the language employed in conversations to be modern and something that is current. Second: Jaffy does not come across as an authentic omniscient narrator instead he talks, acts and sounds like a participant outsider.

Two Comparisons:

Another book of similar setting, plot and storyline is Charles Johnson’s ‘The Middle Passage” and when I compare ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie” with that, I find that the relative magnitude of verbal energy and authenticity that Johnson brings to the narrative is simply missing in Birch’s writing. I remember reading “The Middle Passage” with a gusto and enthusiasm which I missed in this read

Although of different genres, plots and temperaments, within the Booker shortlist I found, Julian Barnes’sThe Sense of an Ending” a far more satisfying read than Birch’s “Jamrach’s Menagerie”.  However, I did enjoy large parts of the book. Overall, for anyone interested in adventures on high seas “Jamrach’s Menagerie” can be a decent choice

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