I bought Jamrach's Menagerie in Paris at Shakespeare and Company. This store was very high on my Need to Do list, and it's conveniently located right across the Seine from Notre Dame. Checkcheck! I'm a bookstore supporter, and I didn't just want to go and be a tourist there; I wanted to give them some money. However, as an actual tourist, I didn't want to wander around with a bunch of heavy books all day. They had a mass market of Jamrach's Menagerie which is a perfect size for touristing. It sounded super interesting from the jacket copy and it was on the Booker short-list so I was going to read it anyway. Sold!
Hoo boy. I hadn't read anything about Jamrach's Menagerie other than it was on the shortlist, and that jacket copy. What attracted me to the novel that day was the time period and by the sounds of it there would be just the faintest hint of magical realism. Good reading for Paris! It begins this way: Jaffy Brown is kind of a Dickensian child, living not in horrific squalor, but on (to the modern, removed reader) picturesque hard-scrabble London streets. He's self-sufficient to a degree, he works odd jobs, brings home that small extra money to his single-mum. The action begins when he runs into an escaped tiger, and engages physically with that tiger in a way that shocks bystanders, one of whom is the tiger's owner, the titular Jamrach. Jaffy's life changes completely at that moment and afterwards he is employed by Jamrach. Working in the menagerie, Jaffy meets Tim, and his sister, Ishbel. The London part of this book is great, totally engaging and transportive. I could easily have read 300 pages of Jaffy's adventures in London. However, when Jaffy gets a little older he outgrows the menagerie and his London confines. Jaffy wants something, and in pursuit of the unknown something he gets on a boat.
"So much for Jaffy the child. He didn't last long, did he?"62 pages, so much for part one.
Jaffy, Tim, and Jamrach's main exotic animal acquirer Dan Rymer, are on the hunt for a Komomdo dragon. The animal at this point in time is only legendary. Capturing and bringing one back to London — alive — will make everyone's fortune. The rest of the novel changes drastically in mood and feel. Everything becomes... I'm not going to mince words here, it gets pretty horrible. No detail of life on board a sailing vessel is missed. They find and capture a Komodo dragon, but not without horrible scenes of how these animals behave. The fate of the ship and its crew gets worse, so so much worse, and I don't want to spoil it but it's a ship, so you can probably guess. I finished the novel, but it was seriously difficult going. Sitting here with the book in my hand, I can't believe it's only 300 pages because at the time it felt like so much more. It's not that I'm squeamish or that everything I read has to be sunny and happy (and if you know me, you'll know that's not really my style anyway). Just, holy shit, this book is seriously grim.
I'm sure that first part of the book is so different from the second to make the contrast more startling, and that works. This is an incredibly well-written book, with strong characters and super-real descriptions (maybe too real). I think the problem is that it's really two books, and they don't mesh well together. If the novel began with everyone getting on the boat, with some flashback exposition, it would have worked better. Unfortunately, the reader is given one book to begin with and then has to completely change gears to understand the second. If my proposal had happened I may not have finished the book because I'd have known right away it was so very much not for me. Sneaky, perhaps, of Birch to get someone like me invested enough in pages one through 61 to hang on for the rest of the ride. Like the sailors, the reader is basically stuck going through it all. In that case, I'm a bit resentful too. I'd have been happier not reading most of this book, to be honest. It's not bad, nor offensive, but the action... ugh. Yes, that's my literary criticism: "ugh."
I'm sending Jamrach's Menagerie to my Dad, because he loves books about big ships, and those that work them. Given that, I'm sure he's read some pretty bleak things, so I'll be interested to hear his take on this book. As for me, I'm actually kind of amazed I finished it.
*Oh, hey, 800ish. I have seriously lost the brevity thread.