Jamrach's Menagerie

by Carol Birch

Reviewed by Annis

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch Bursting with exuberant Dickensian life, Jamrach’s Menagerie takes an engaging street urchin from the East End docklands of Victorian London on a dazzling, dangerous adventure to far-off lands that will test him to his limits and beyond.

Jamrach’s emporium down Ratcliffe Highway is a by-word in London, catering to an insatiable demand for exotica with a treasure-trove of curiosities and strange creatures. One day a tiger escapes and runs right into Jaffy Brown. “I was born twice”, says Jaffy. “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 its mouth and everything truly began.” Mr Jamrach rescues Jaffy. Impressed by the fearless little lad with an affinity for animals, he offers him a job. Jaffy’s workmate Tim becomes his best friend over the years, and the two boys jump at the chance to leave home and go on an expedition to the Dutch East Indies in search of a rumoured “dragon”.

The old whaling ship Lysander wends its way across the seas, opening Jaffy’s eyes to the wonders of the world. All goes well until they capture the dragon. “The dragons of stories were beautiful, flying the sky wonderfully winged, deadly but magnificent. But these - these were massively ugly, with a brutal, careless power more nightmare than fairy tale. Their eyes lacked anything a human could comprehend.” The caged dragon’s unnerving, elemental malevolence puts a blight on the ship and its crew. And when the Lysander is wrecked, their troubles are only beginning…

Beautifully written, Jamrach’s Menagerie is vivid, intense and lyrical, a flamboyant feast for the senses. Its exploration of the ambivalent relationship between man and the natural world which so fascinated the Victorians, is not for the faint-hearted, taking the reader to the edge of what is humanly bearable. Like Jaffy’s fateful tiger it is splendid yet terrible. (2011; 304 pages)

More about Jamrach's Menagerie at Powell's Books or Amazon.com

Other novels about Victorian expeditions:

Rifling Paradise by Jem Poster (2006), about a nineteenth-century Englishman who goes to Australia to collect bird specimens and travels into the outback with a brutish colonial guide and an intuitive part-Aboriginal boy. See review or more info at Powell's Books

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson (2005; titled To the Edge of the World in the U.S. and published as a trilogy), about the manic-depressive, devoutly Christian captain of the Beagle, the ship that brought Charles Darwin to the Galapagos. More info

Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998), about an 1855 expedition to the Arctic in search of a lost ship. More info

Nonfiction about the history of scientific exploration:

The Species Seekers by Richard Conniff (2010), about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century explorations of discovery. More info

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (2010), about pioneering eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientists. More info

The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age by Harriet Ritvo (1987), about the exploitive human attitudes toward animals during the Victorian period. More info


Charles Jamrach at Suite101, UK-Irish History

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