TITLE: JAMRACH'S MENAGERIE
AUTHOR: CAROL BIRCH
Copy received from and reviewed for Bookhugger and its Realreaders programme.
"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."
So starts Jaffy Brown's story. Born into poverty to a single mother in the 19th century he can't help himself when, aged eight, he sees a tiger lose in the street. He feels compelled to go to the tiger and stroke it, only to find himself in the tiger's mouth. It's an encounter he miraculously survives, and one that lands him a job in the Menagerie of the tiger's temporary owner, Mr. Jamrach.
Here he meets and befriends Tim Linver and falls in love with Tim's twin sister Ishbel.
Some years later a client of Mr. Jamrach wants to own a fabled but never seen or captured dragon, and Jaffy and Tim join a crew on a whaling boat part of a quest to bring home one such creature.
The journey before the dragon is captured goes well; the whaling is succesful, a lot of the world is seen and friendships are made. The post dragon return journey is one long nightmare though, reaching its climax when the ship sinks and the crew finds themselves in two live boats in the middle of the ocean with little food and water. From then on survival is the only concern of those remaining, leading to dreadful choices and a lifetime of nightmares for those who might be "lucky" enough to survive.
"One way or another I suppose you could say that voyage was the making of me. I'd have been a yardboy. Is that what it was all for? To make of me the man I am now? Is God mad? Is that it? Stuck between a mad God and merciless nature? What a game."
This is a fascinating yet horrific story. The book is very well written, and Jaffy is a well rounded, likeable yet entirely human main character. However, there were times, after the ship had sunk in the story, when I had to put the book down and walk away from it for a little while because the story got to gruesome for me. I did find myself having to return to the book though, to see how the story would end. To find out if anything positive could ever come out of all the horror the characters were put through.
It says a lot about the qualitity of the writing that I managed to finish this book. In the hands of a lesser author, the more horrific parts of the story would have lead to me putting the book aside without finishing it. As it is, I'm glad I did finish the story. Yes, it is gruesome in parts, but ultimately it is a story of humanity and what it takes for us to let go of some of our humanity, and the price we pay for that afterwards.
The fact that the story is based on a true event, the sinking of the whaleship Essex only makes this book more fascinating. I'm glad I didn't know about the background of the story until I finished reading the book though. If I had read the acknowledgments first, as I sometimes do, I might not have read the book at all.