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Summary and book reviews of Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie

A Novel

by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2011, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2012, 304 pages

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Book Summary

A thrilling and powerful novel about a young boy lured to sea by the promise of adventure and reward, with echoes of Great Expectations, Moby-Dick, and The Voyage of the Narwhal.

Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of a nineteenth-century street urchin named Jaffy Brown. Following an incident with an escaped tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr. Charles Jamrach, the famed importer of exotic animals, alongside Tim, a good but sometimes spitefully competitive boy. Thus begins a long, close friendship fraught with ambiguity and rivalry.

Mr. Jamrach recruits the two boys to capture a fabled dragon during the course of a three-year whaling expedition. Onboard, Jaffy and Tim enjoy the rough brotherhood of sailors and the brutal art of whale hunting. They even succeed in catching the reptilian beast.

But when the ship's whaling venture falls short of expectations, the crew begins to regard the dragon - seething with feral power in its cage - as bad luck, a feeling that is cruelly reinforced when a violent storm sinks the ship.

Drifting across an increasingly hallucinatory ocean, the survivors, including Jaffy and Tim, are forced to confront their own place in the animal kingdom. Masterfully told, wildly atmospheric, and thundering with tension, Jamrach's Menagerie is a truly haunting novel about friendship, sacrifice, and survival.

Chapter 1

I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.

Say Bermondsey and they wrinkle their noses. Still, it was the home before all other homes. The river lapped beneath us as we slept. Our door looked out over a wooden rail into the channel at the front, where dark water heaved up an odd sullen grey bubble. If you looked down through the slats, you could see things moving in the swill below. Thick green slime, glistening in the slosh that banged up against it, crept up the crumbling wooden piles.

I remember the jagged lanes with bent elbows and crooked knees, rutted horse shit in the road, the dung of sheep that passed our house every day from the marshes and the cattle bellowing their unbearable sorrows in the tannery yard. I remember the dark bricks of the tanning factory, and the rain falling black. The wrinkled red bricks...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The book is about life, love, friendship, journeys, life at sea, survival, caring for animals, and coming to terms with tragedy and death, all told against the backdrop of 19th century life. Carol Birch is an amazing writer, not merely a talented one - she's a GREAT contemporary writer - and Jamrach's Menagerie is a book that you really MUST read - Elizabeth K   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post

For a new salty adventure across the watery part of the world, you won’t find a better passage than Jamrach’s Menagerie.

The National

[H]er salty historical adventure set on the perilous ocean….[is] potentially a career-defining book…..visceral and primal….and though this is very much an adventure story, the writing is thoughtful and elevating as well as effortlessly readable…..Birch transfers that passion for history to the page…[in] vivid style.

Publishers Weekly

Birch's writing is assured and enticing, and she's especially talented at creating floating, still moments amid the action...

Booklist

Starred Review. She is...a brilliant stylist; reader her is like Christmas, every word being a gift to the reader. Though Birch is an established writer in England, this is her first novel to be published in the U.S. One fervently hopes it will not be the last.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A magical, literary novel puts a surreal spin on a coming-of-age seafaring saga.

Financial Times (UK)

An exuberant tale of sea-faring, exotic fauna and drunken shore leave... [Birch's] prose has an irresistible vigor... her words sing on the page...

The Daily Mail (UK)

Carol Birch's storytelling excels... [Birch] produces a sustained feat of imagination and diligent research.

The Times (UK)

An imaginative tour-de-force, encompassing the sights and smells of 19th-century London and the wild sea.... It's gripping, superbly written and a delight.

Sunday Times (UK)

Riveting... Birch is masterful at evoking period and place... [A] teeming exhibition of the beautiful and the bizarre, and its serious ideas about the relationship between mankind and the natural world are communicated with such delicacy of touch that they never slow down the propulsive telling of the story or dim the brilliance of the prose.

Reader Reviews

Paula W. (Sarasota, FL)

A Truly Terrible Book
From the very first paragraph..."I was born twice. First in a wooden room...,and then again...in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth...." - this novel was full of terrible and awful events. Jaffey's adventures are terrifying and ...   Read More

Sharon W. (Two Rivers, WI)

Jamarach's Menagerie
If you like mystery and suspense, you will definitely love this one. I wasn't so sure about it in the beginning, but it reeled me right in. Once it got me, it was hard to put down till I finished. From being almost eaten alive by a tiger to ...   Read More

Rosemary K. (Saginaw, MI)

Don't give up!
Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie is not really my type of book at all. Following the adventures of a street urchin who gets involved with exotic animals and goes to sea does not pique my curiosity. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and slowly, ...   Read More

Alison W. (Woodinville, Washington)

Jamrach's Menagerie
I fully enjoyed Jamrach's Menagerie. It is a wonderful book written in beautiful, lyrical prose. It's a compelling story that has everything: love, deep friendship, and thrilling adventure. Ms. Birch has the rare ability to make the reader feel as...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Charles Jamrach, The Essex and The Custom of The Sea

Jamrach's Menagerie borrows from a number of historical events and people including:

Charles Jamrach
Charles Jamrach's father was chief of the Hamburg River Police, a position that enabled him to establish himself as a dealer in wild birds and animals. When his father died around 1840, Charles moved from Germany to take over the London branch of business. Before long he was one of London's leading importers, breeders, and exporters of animals with both a shop, Jamrach's Emporium, and a menagerie.

In 1857, a Bengal tiger escaped from the Emporium, carrying off a young boy. Boy and tigerJamrach saved the boy who seemed relatively uninjured, and offered £50 in compensation, but the boy's father sued for £300. The family ended up ...

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