Jamrach’s Menagerie

by Carol Birch

 

Wow, this one took a weird turn. Don’t be fooled by its whimsical name and cover art, its young protagonist, or the numerous ecstatic blurbs; in Jamrach’s Managerie, shit gets dark pretty quickly. And I don’t mean, a boy and his best friend go through hardship together, I’m talking dark.

I got this book for Christmas and read it in early January. I hadn’t heard of the book till it was in my hands, but the aforementioned blurbs described it as a some sort of combination of Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, and Moby Dick. Indeed, it starts out appearing to be just that. A boy, Jaffy Brown, growing up in a 19th century London slum, has a chance encounter with a tiger, and ends up working for Mr. Jamrach, a trader in exotic animals. He makes quick friends with Tim Livner, another boy working for Jamrach, and falls in love with Tim’s sister, Ishbel. After a few years, when Tim is recruited to help hunt down a dragon that lives in the East Indies, Jaffy decides to sign up as well, boarding a whaling ship in the search of adventure.

So far so good, right? There is, actually, a good deal of wonder and adventure in this book, starting with Jaffy joining the crew of the Lysander. He experiences the sea and falls in love with it, despite the duties that being a crew member implies. He gets drunk at a bar in the Azores, experiences the grueling and gruesome whaling process, and explores exotic islands looking for the dragon. It was all shaping up to be an excellent coming-of-age story, or bildungsroman, as my friend Jake would say. I thought this was when Jamrach’s Menagerie really shone, and even though it had done little to stand out, I could understand the praise that it had gotten.

The back of the book says that “Jaffy’s journey will push faith, love, and friendship to their utmost limits.” I don’t want to give any details away, but given what happens in the second half, I would say that is a serious understatement. Now, I know what you’re going to say: don’t judge a book by its cover, the summary isn’t even written by the author, etc. So true; this is all meant to entice us to buy and read the book. Only a moron would be disappointed that the book didn’t meet the promise of the back cover.

And yet I think it is strange. Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, and I can appreciate why everything happened, but it almost felt like I was reading two different books. The first was like any young adult adventure novel, and I enjoyed it as such. As for the second half, I can’t think of anything to which it compares, nothing I’ve read at least. It’s like how I went to see Pearl Harbor thinking it would be a beautiful love story set in Hawaii, and then halfway through it a war comes out of nowhere and runs away with the plot. Birch does something similar with Jamrach’s Menagerie. (Kidding about Pearl Harbor.)

Thinking over it again, I think I’m giving the impression that this was a bad book, and I don’t think that’s fair. On the other hand, I don’t know that I gained all that much from it. Ignoring my main gripe, I didn’t like the character Skip, who all the other characters see as completely crazy, but who, it is implied, may have the second sight after all. This feels too familiar to me, though the only similar character who comes to mind is Abed from Community. So maybe I’m wrong. None of the other characters seemed like archetypes to me, and most were pretty minor anyway.

Anyways, I think my attempt to not spoil the plot resulted in a confusing review, and I probably made the book sound much worse than it is. As far as young adult fiction goes these days, I thought that Birch had a genuinely unique story to tell, which seems to be an accomplishment in and of itself.

I really don’t know who I’d advise to read this book; perhaps if I had a gothic teenager, or if I knew someone who could use a shot of depression.

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