Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jaffy Brown meets Mr. Jamrach as a young street urchin in London.  Mr. Jamrach is a wild-animal importer, supplying zoos and private collectors.  A tiger escapes and Jaffy, entranced, walks up to him and strokes his nose, no fear evident.  Mr. Jamrach recognizes that Jaffy has an affinity for caring for animals and hires him to help in his establishment.  Jaffy loves his new job and soon has a best friend, Tim.  Tim is another boy in the yard and alternately the best friend and a cruel enemy to Jaffy.  Tim has a twin sister, Ishbel, and Jaffy is friends with her also, and feels the start of adult feelings towards her.

As Jaffy grows, he and Tim want more adventure.  They find it when word reaches one of Mr. Jamrach's collectors that a real dragon has been spotted.  He funds an expedition on a whaling ship to hunt the dragon and capture it to become the centerpiece of the collector's private zoo.  Full of excitement, Jaffy jumps at the chance.

Life as a sailor and on a whaling boat is new to Jaffy, but he soon settles in.  The work is hard, but he has known nothing more.  Birch gives great insight into what a whale hunt was like in those days, the breaching of the whale, men taking to the sea in small boats to defeat these gigantic creatures who could kill them with a swish of their tails, the brutal killing and work of extracting the oil. 

After weeks of whale hunting, the boat approaches the remote island where the dragon has been spotted.  The Jamrach expedition sallies forth and manages to capture the mystical beast.  Loading it back on the ship, they cast off to make their fortune back in London.  But the beast brings bad luck and the boat sinks, leaving a few survivors to try to make their way back to their former lives.

Carol Birch's book has been longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction for 2011, and it is evident why it was selected.  Her forte is description, and she effortlessly transports the reader to another time and place.  The reader feels what it must have been like to grow up poor in London, to fight the large beasts of the ocean, and to be shipwrecked.  She explores the nature of friendship, and what men will do to survive. The reader cannot put the book down, drawn to find out what happens to Jaffy and his comrades.  This book is recommended for all readers.

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