Monday 2 January 2012

Tigers, Dragons - and Cannibalism

 “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.”

If that’s not a first paragraph to entice you into a novel, I don’t know what is. Jaffy Brown, narrator of Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch,  is eight years old when the tiger escapes from a menagerie, and is rescued by owner Mr Jamrach, who employs him to work with the animals. So far, so true - Charles Jamrach was a real person, who sold exotic animals at Ratcliffe Highway, in London’s East End, and in 1857 he really did rescue a young boy who was carried off by a run-away tiger. From this starting point Birch creates an imagined life for the unnamed, unknown boy which takes him on a nightmare journey where, once again, he escapes death. But it is many years before Jaffy undergoes another kind of rebirth and finally finds peace, and a kind of absolution, as he learns to live with his past.

Others have described the book as Dickensian, largely I think because of the first section with its colourful characters and the squalid conditions they live in. Jaffy learns about life and love with fellow worker Tim and his sister Ishbel. But everything changes when the two lads, accompanied by animal expert Dan Rymer, set sail to capture a dragon for one of Jamrach’s wealthy clients.

A sketch of the Essex drawn by a survivor -
part of Jamrach's Menagerie is based on the ordeal
of the shipwrecked sailors.
The tone of the book shifts in the second section, which charts the terrible events of the voyage. They are aboard a whaler, and there is a graphic description of how whale oil is produced, but that is a sideline and what follows is even more horrific. When the creature they seek (presumably a kimodo dragon) is caught and caged, the superstitious seamen believe it has brought them back luck, and their fears are realised when the ship is sunk by a waterspout. The remaining crew drift in the Pacific for more than 60 days, plagued by illness, madness and death. To survive, they turn to cannibalism until eventually the few who are left agree to follow ‘the custom of the sea’: one must die if the others are to live. They draw lots to find killer and victim, and it falls to Jaffy to shoot Tim.

This part of the story may carry echoes of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, but the ordeal of Jaffy and his companions is based on true accounts of the events which occurred when whaling ship The Essex was sunk by a whale, a disaster which inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. It may sound as if the novel is not for the faint-hearted, but the subject matter is sensitively handled, never sensationalised, and beautifully written, always in the character of its narrator.

In the third and final section, Jaffy finds it almost impossible to face Tim’s mother and sister or to pick up the threads of his old life, so he returns to sea. But eventually he forgives himself for what happened, and finds love and happiness with Ishbel and a menagerie of birds.

Reading this through, I’ve left out so much  – the descriptions of street life in Victorian London; the camaraderie on board ship; the exotic locations; the forewarnings of disaster that could almost be missed, but build a feeling of menacing unease... Then there are the characters – not just the central figures, but a cast of traders, aging prostitutes, and mariners, all with a story of their own if there was only time to step aside from the main story.

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