Sometimes a novel comes along that one reads simply for the pleasure of enjoying the skill (or is it magic?) with which the author selects and arranges her words and images across the page. These days, it has become a rare pleasure to find such a book. Carol Birch has already become a respected novelist in her native UK, having written ten books, won awards and been long-listed for a Booker. But Jamrach’s Menagerie is her first full-length work of fiction to be published in the United States. Those of us who live on this (the western) side of the pond are in for a rare and long-awaited treat.
Jamrach’s Menagerie is the dramatic story of a 19th-century street urchin named Jaffy Brown. He is recruited, along with another boy and a rough-and-tumble crew, by a famed importer of exotic animals. On board Mr. Charles Jamrach’s ship, Jaffy experiences the brutal hunting of whales as they search for the vicious, fabled sea dragon that is the reason for the three-year expedition. The story flows hauntingly through scenes of deftly blended realism and fantasy. Birch’s mastery of the language and the art of fiction are breathtaking, and we are swept away as if on the same seas as those traveled by Jaffy, unable to put down the book for such trivial needs as sleep or a meal. When we reach the final page, we understand a little more about the power of friendship, the meaning of sacrifice, and the remarkable gifts of survival in a harsh and unpredictable world populated by very real monsters. Highly recommended.