Jamrach’s Menagerie is an amazing, brutal piece of literature and one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read.
The book starts in 1857 when Jaffy, an eight-year old London street urchin is picked up by an escaped tiger and carried to Jamrach’s Menagerie. Jaffy is hired by Jamrach and years later, as a young man, sets out on a whaling ship with his best friend Tim in search of an exotic animal for a wealthy collector. The first half of the novel is beautifully written and seems to be setting the stage for a light picaresque or a romantic historical adventure but the second half of the novel is something else all together. My father, who recommended this book, had hinted that horrible things beset our protagonist as the novel goes on but, even armed with this knowledge, I was unprepared.
Without spoiling things I will say that the plot points of the second half of this novel were not unfamiliar to me but Birch’s treatment of the material was unlike anything I’ve ever read. I mentioned that the first half of the novel was beautifully written. The second half is no less so. It’s also brutally unflinching. Birch’s merciless attention to detail builds dread to the point where one thinks it must surely break and then keeps going. The effect is horrifying and, as readers, we share Jaffy’s journey beyond the limits of human endurance.
Needless to say, this book is incredibly moving. It’s also a deeply profound and thoughtful book.