348 pages, Text Publishing
Review by SF Winser
Filth. Disease. Foul aromas.
These are the heroes of this book. The story of London in the 1800s, of animals, of ship life and all their accompanying horrors and everyday dirtiness. Sh*t and dirt and smells pervade every page.
Charles Jamrach was a real person in London in the mid nineteenth century, selling animals to artists and zoos and naturalists. In 1857 one of his tigers escaped and nearly ate a small boy in mid-London. The boy was saved only when Jamrach launched himself at the tiger and forced it to spit the boy up.
This is the ficitonalised tale of Jaf, the young tiger-attack survivor. Growing up poverty-stricken, given a job in the menagerie by Jamrach and eventually going a-venturing to discover new animals himself.
It's a well-told tale with some very nice use of language – though this never gets in the way of the story. I'm still not sure what the deeper themes are, or even if there are any beyond 'survival is tough'. It's more an experiential novel than an inspirational one. We experience these things along with Jaf, wonder how we will survive them – survive poverty, survive tiger-attack, survive friendship, survive love. We follow the narrator, young Jaf., through childhood, teen years, adventures and eventual settling down. We see how he struggles with each of these. How the time before each of these happenings makes coming through his most recent circumstances tougher. I couldn't help but compare it to the bildingsroman novels of Dickens, with their emphasis on growth from childhood and onwards. In that regard, the whole time I was reading this I actually felt that the only criticism I could level was that it was too short. In 'Jamrach's Menagerie', Birch has made a world in which the reader can feel and inhabit with her characters. I kept wanting a more epic scope and a slower pace to kind of revel in her world – foul as it was. I wanted her to make this book 500 pages long. And I mean this as an actual criticism, not as some sort of backhanded compliment (though it works as that, too). This book, though not short, needed to be longer to bring it from excellent to amazing. Don't let that stop you from reading it, though. It remains excellent.
There are some absolutely knockout sections. At one point there is a slow series of deaths. Each one is uniquely horrifying and singularly affecting. Poor Jaf nearly loses his mind. It reaches almost horror-novel gruesomeness in a perfectly justified way. After so many passings it would have been easy for this to have become a numbing litany. Birch makes every single death count until even the reader is in a near-traumatised state.
There is also a wonderful mad-boy. He is disturbing and likable and simply insane. The way he inserts himself into the narrative and convinces others to take his madness seriously is elegantly handled. There's no real attempt by Birch to make his madness prophetic or real, even when she lets Jaf be sometimes seduced by it. For once, someone with mental illness in a book is not actually secretly psychic even though other characters sometimes think he is. He's just dangerously nuts.
My only other minor criticism is the title. Jamrach is the only 'real' person in the book. Jaf himself is an amalgam of at least two real people and a massive dose of made-up stuff. But Jamrach is not actually a main character. His menagerie is, at best, a secondary device and scene. The title implies a greater role of both Jamrach and/or his menagerie. It's a bit like calling 'The Lord of the Rings' 'Bilbo's Shire' or calling 'Anne of Green Gables' 'Diana's Front Parlour' or drawing a comic strip with a dog and some kids where the humour comes from a dark examination of their psyches and silly dog-jokes and calling it 'Peanuts'. It makes very little sense to me. But authors often have no say over their titles, so I can't necessarily lay that at Birch's door. It's a misleading title when Jamrach is, and his menagerie are, more middling catalysts than major players.
Smelly, shocking, well written and far too short.