The idyll soon ends, though — “So much for Jaffy the child. He didn’t last long, did he?” — as the novel takes off on a three-cord braid of adventure story, survival drama and coming-of-age tale. Jaffy and Tim go to sea. The force behind the voyage is one Mr. Fledge, a wealthy and mysterious animal collector who has heard tell of real dragons (dragons!) living somewhere in the East Indies: the Komodo dragon, of course, though for all Tim and Jaffy know, it might breathe fire.
Leading the expedition is the wizened sea dog Dan Rymer, Jaffy’s second father figure. The quest is to hunt and capture one of these dragons, and bring it back alive. Jaffy’s contribution is to play dragon-whisperer. Gone is London on loan from Dickens, traded in, it seems, for a whaling ship from Melville, though with less beard-stroking pathos and with a lizard standing in for the white whale.
To write a novel about a whaling voyage is a brave business — the author is inevitably asking readers to ignore that other whale in the room — but this leg of the jaunt turns out to be less “Moby-Dick” and more “Treasure Island.” The spirit is that of a high-seas adventure novel, a Victorian book for boys. It has the same gung-ho, oblivious-to-imperialism rambunctiousness found in Kipling or Stevenson (as well as an almost complete absence of sex, which, though it exists, is banished far, far off the page). There’s a classic motley crew of eccentric side characters, including a twitchy clairvoyant of many talents, the only one to eventually emerge from the background. There are streaks of more serious stuff, but when the boys hunt the dragon, the tone is pure “Land That Time Forgot.” Hup, ho! Jolly good fun, this!
That’s one reason it’s so disturbing when, after the oddly easy capture of the quasi-mythical dragon, Birch begins to turn down the lights. Now we get a survival story as the crew is lost at sea. This is the novel’s strongest section, in part because it feels the most like Birch’s own. The narrative dissolves into a hallucinatory haze that drags on for so long one begins to realize that the frank banality of its violence and its sluggish, grinding monotony function as a brilliant device, leading us as slowly as possible through hell and suffering with the small, long-promised carrot of Jaffy’s survival. “Thirst and hunger came on sharp,” Jaffy observes. “The world can divide, can double like vision. So could I. I was here, wide-eyed, mad-silenced, staring at the sky and the dim, gray sea, the bruised and laden smudges of cloud, the waves. The rest of my life was a dream.”
Sex may spend the whole novel offstage, but not death. The increasing degradation of the characters as they drift for days on days is harrowing. “I woke and my tongue was out of my mouth,” Jaffy recounts. “It had turned into a creature I did not know, lazy and fat, swelling and oozing as it thrust its way out into the light through the slack hole of my mouth. My own tongue made me retch.”
Probably the most interesting element of this novel is not its horrors, but its colorful milieu, the late-19th-century interest in naturalism. Bizarre new species are being discovered the world over and hauled back to the dazzled biologists of Europe. Whaling is on the decline, and Darwin is all the intellectual rage. The island of the dragon has less in common with the mysterious, mist-shrouded isles of adventure stories than it does with the Galápagos. And in Jaffy, Birch has captured a boyish wonder at nature, a fascination with animals that any kid who’s ever caught a snake in the woods will be familiar with. As phantasmagoric as the mood of this novel gets, there is nothing in it that steps outside the bounds of reality, for it knows the real world is fantastic enough.Continue reading the main story
By Carol Birch
295 pp. Doubleday. $25.95.
Jamrach's Menagerie is a 2011 novel by Carol Birch. The novel has been referred to as historical fiction, since it features certain real life characters, such as naturalist Charles Jamrach.
The novel was short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.
At the age of eight, Jaffy Brown encounters a tiger escaped from the menagerie of Charles Jamrach, wandering about London's East End. Taken up in the tiger's jaws, he is rescued by Jamrach himself, who then offers Jaffy a job. Jaffy loves working at the menagerie and becomes friends with another employee, Tim Linver. He falls in love with Tim's sister and the three of them grow up together on the streets of London.
Several years later, when Jaffy is sixteen, he and Tim are dispatched by Jamrach to the Dutch East Indies, aboard a whaling ship. Under the charge of Jamrach's seasoned field agent, Dan Rymer, they have been sent to capture a "dragon" for the menagerie. The crew successfully capture the dragon, but on the return voyage it is set loose by Skip, one of the ship's mad crewmen, and after it bites a crew member they are forced to drive it overboard. Later the vessel is struck by a waterspout and sunk, leaving only a dozen men alive, stranded in the Pacific Ocean in two whaleboats. The two boats make for the coast of Chile, and as the crew gradually begin to die of starvation, thirst and exposure, they resort to cannibalism. Eventually only Jaffy, Tim, Skip and Dan are left alive, and they draw straws to see who will be killed and eaten. Tim draws the short straw, and Jaffy kills him, an act which will haunt him for the rest of his life. Eventually Skip also dies, and by the time Dan and Jaffy arrive in Chile they are half-dead with exhaustion and half-mad from grief and anguish.
In the book's coda, Jaffy returns home, faces Tim's family, and goes through a long period of depression and ennui. He eventually returns to life as a sailor, and in his retirement constructs a bird menagerie of his own.
Charles Jamrach was a real historical figure who operated a menagerie in east London in the 19th century, and at one point a Bengal tiger escaped and took an eight-year-old boy in its mouth. This event is depicted by a statue in Tobacco Dock in Wapping. Jamrach personally rescued the boy from the tiger.
The ordeal of the crew in the lifeboats is largely based on the notorious shipwreck of the whalerEssex, which a sperm whale rammed and sank in 1820. A sixteen-year-old sailor named Charles Ramsdell shot his childhood friend Owen Coffin after the drawing of straws. Coffin, like Tim, insisted on the deal being honoured. Ramsdell survived the incident and returned to life as a sailor.