September Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

The ocean has always been a place for strong emotions. Perhaps more than anything, it is the vast, endless expanse that provokes such acute uncertainty and introspection. As Jamrach’s Menagerie’s main protagonist puts it while drifting in the South China Sea: “I saw the earth curve and felt as dizzy as a poor gnat on the brim of a drain…” The imagery works: there is nowhere quite like the sea to make the individual feel very small indeed.

Of course, for writers, the problem with stories set amidst the emptiness of the ocean is that not much actually happens. Powerful emotions are few and far between; most of the time, life on a ship is dull, repetitive and predictable. This might explain why the most famous sailing adventure of all — Herman Melville’s Moby Dick — is essentially a psychodrama. The action takes place inside the characters’ heads rather than out at sea.

Carol Birch has acknowledged the importance ofMoby Dick — and a host of other sailing stories — in the preparation for Jamrach’s Menagerie. These influences shine through clearly. This book is, above all, a personal voyage and an intense psychological thriller. The monotony of the ocean, punctuated by moments of extreme emotion, becomes a vast canvas on which Birch paints a compelling mixture of an adventure saga and a coming-of-age story.

The journey begins in east London in the mid-nineteenth century, when ‘Jaffy’ Brown finds himself caught in the mouth of a Bengal tiger. The responsibility for this unlikely occurrence lies with Charles Jamrach, a seller of exotic animals. Embarrassed by the ‘accident,’ Jamrach offers Jaffy a job working in his menagerie, looking after the animals. This formative experience gives the young teenage lad his first taste of work and also whets his appetite for more discoveries.

When Jaffy hears of an expedition to south-east Asia to capture a mysterious ‘dragon,’ he cannot resist signing up, despite the fact that his own father was a sailor who died before he was born. We are made to understand that the call of the sea is both elemental and generational: Jaffy makes the decision to go, it was in his blood.

There is just enough time for Jaffy to say goodbye to his relatives and his part-time sweetheart, Ishbel, before lifting anchor. He leaves London on a whaling ship with a motley crew, one of whom is his friend, Tim — another of Jamrach’s employees. It is here that the adventure really begins. Jaffy and his shipmates get to know each other, pass the beautiful Azores, hunt whales and eventually reach the islands where the dragon is said to live.

The dramatic hunt for the ‘dragon’ — presumably what is now known as the komodo dragon — is a success, but brings with it all manner of trouble. By the time the whaling ship sinks, far out into the Pacific Ocean, Jaffy’s excitement has turned to fear. The long and agonising journey back to Britain provides a severe life lesson for the boy from East London. We later find that he has not renounced the sea forever, but, in his later years, he pursues his love of animals by setting up a bird menagerie of his own. Jaffy has come full circle; he conquers the sea but he is never entirely at peace.

This disarmingly simple plot — really just a sailing adventure with a prologue and a coda — underestimates the skill with which Birch draws her characters. Previously known as an author who specialised in female protagonists, this is a departure from the usual. Yet she succeeds handsomely in giving young Jaffy an almost-perfect combination of naïveté and youthful enthusiasm.

Beyond the characters, however, it is the physical impact of the author’s prose that impresses itself upon the reader’s mind. The sailors’ facial features are drawn with accuracy and their facial expressions have a dazzling cinematographic quality. In its descriptions, the text is a veritable assault on the senses. Whether it is the stench of working-class London or the sight of oil spurting from a dead whale’s body, Birch has us recoiling at the sheer sensory experience. When the ‘green’ first-time sailors get sea-sick and vomit up their insides, it is as if it has landed at your feet. And when the crew bake under a relentless tropical sun, you can almost taste the sweat on your tongue.

Birch combines this formidable descriptive talent with a wonderful feel for set-pieces. The two outstanding moments in the book are the hunt and capture of the whale early on, and the nail-biting two months that the surviving crew spend adrift in the Pacific after their boat sinks. In her account of the whale hunt, the author delights in activating one physical sensation after another. Pain, sweat, stench, euphoria, fear — we are drawn through a technicolour display that must have influenced last year’s Booker Prize and Orange Prize judges, who put Jamrach’s Menagerie on their shortlist and longlist respectively.

But it is the final third of the book that is likely to remain with readers for the longest. Once the whaling ship has sunk, the remaining crew are left to fend for themselves in the biggest ocean on the planet, drifting along in two small whaling boats. Their suffering is intense and their physical deterioration acute. Eventually, they start to die; the prospect of cannibalism looms on the horizon. The adventure of a lifetime turns into a floating hell.

Birch chooses to give us a sympathetic portrait of humans at the edge of existence. This is no Lord of the Flies-like dystopia. Nevertheless, she has a remarkable ability to capture both the mental and corporeal decline of her characters. They wither like flowers in the heat, clinging on to the remains of their humanity. As time wears on, the one ‘mad’ crew-member, who has tormented his fellow sailors with his insane ramblings for much of the journey, appears to be the most lucid. His claim that devils are following the ship seem to be as good an explanation as any for the purgatory in which they are stranded.

Birch did a good deal of historical research before writing the book. Charles Jamrach was a real figure (who owned a real tiger) and the whaling story is loosely based on the experiences of those on the stricken Whaleship Essex in the 1820s. It is clear that she has used this knowledge to good effect. It gives the story credibility and historical texture. But, ultimately, what makes Jamrach’s Menagerie such a good read is its deep empathy. Perhaps the greatest compliment is that this is not a journey that Jaffy and his fellow crew take alone — we are with them every step of the way.

This book review was originally published in the September issue under the headline “Compelling Canvas.”