Sunday, May 29, 2011

Historical Fiction: Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

From the back cover of my ARC (slightly truncated, though): Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of a 19th-century street urchin named Jaffy Brown. Following an incident with an escaped tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr. Charles Jamrach, the famed importer of exotic animals.There Jaffy meets another animal handler, Tim, and thus begins a long, close friendship. Mr. Jamrach recruits the two boys to capture a fabled sea dragon during the course of a three-year whaling expedition. Onboard, Jaffy and Tim enjoy the rough brotherhood of sailors and the brutal art of whale hunting. They even succeed in catching the vicious dragon. But when the ship's whaling venture falls short of expectations, the crew begins to regard the reptilian beast as bad luck, a feeling that is cruelly reinforced when a violent storm sinks the ship and the survivors, including Jaffy and Tim, are forced to confront their own place in the animal kingdom while drifting across an increasingly hallucinatory ocean.

From reading others' reviews, apparently I am one of the few people who didn't really like this book (I also discovered that Jamrach was an actual person). I found the first half of the novel boring. Yeah, Jaffy almost gets his head bitten off by a tiger, but after that it's all work at the menagerie and sailing, and somehow Birch didn't make it interesting enough to hold my attention. There were some isolated events where I thought, "Yes! Finally, the point is being made clear!" - but these were, again, isolated and ended up not leading to anything. The plot picked up some after the shipwreck roughly halfway through the story, because it was interesting to trace the deterioration of the surviving sailors as their meager supplies run down over the weeks, bringing ill health, insanity, a loss of hope for rescue, and death. Still, I felt like there was supposed to be some deeper message to Jaffy's story, and I missed it. You lucky readers who managed to find the message and enjoy this book, I envy you.

Maturity Factor: Profanity and somewhat graphic cannibalism.

My ARC of Jamrach's Menagerie was received from the publisher, Doubleday. It was first published in the UK in February, and the US edition goes on sale June 14, 2011.

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