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A thrilling and powerful novel about a young boy lured to sea by the promise of adventure and reward, with echoes of Great Expectations, Moby-Dick, and The Voyage of the Narwhal.
Jamrach’s Menagerie tells the story of a nineteenth-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, alongside Tim, a good but sometimes spitefully competitive boy. Thus begins a long, close friendship fraught with ambiguity and rivalry.
Mr. Jamrach recruits the two boys to capture a fabled 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 reptilian beast.
But when the ship’s whaling venture falls short of expectations, the crew begins to regard the dragon—seething with feral power in its cage—as bad luck, a feeling that is cruelly reinforced when a violent storm sinks the ship.
Drifting across an increasingly hallucinatory ocean, the survivors, including Jaffy and Tim, are forced to confront their own place in the animal kingdom. Masterfully told, wildly atmospheric, and thundering with tension, Jamrach’s Menagerie is a truly haunting novel about friendship, sacrifice, and survival.
"[An] almost unbearably suspenseful story of adventure and survival....as the story advances, a powerfully pervasive sense of melancholy takes hold of the reader, much as the tiger did young Jaffy, and one wonders if it will ever let go. Though Mr. Jamrach is based on a real historical figure, and Jaffy's voyage on that of the ill-fated whaler Essex, the story is entirely Birch's, and her principal characters are her own wonderful invention. She is, moreover, a brilliant stylist; reader her is like Christmas, every word being a gift to the reader. Though Birch is an established writer in England, this is her first novel to be published in the U.S. One fervently hopes it will not be the last." —Booklist, starred review
"A magical, literary novel puts a surreal spin on a coming-of-age seafaring saga. . . . Retains a sense of childlike wonder in its lyrical prose. . . . Jaffy's experience could well move the reader as profoundly as it changed the narrator" —Kirkus, starred review
"One of the best stories I’ve ever read; an extraordinarily good and completely original book." —A. S. Byatt, author of The Children's Book
"Transcendently researched, unsparing and hypnotic, Jamrach's Menagerie takes us to the edge of endurance where it becomes impossible to distinguish the captor from the captive. Carol Birch's urgent and wise story goes far beyond any whaling expedition, plumbing the depths of how we create our own humanity. It is a thrill to welcome this remarkable novelist to a larger American audience." —Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger
“[T]here are enough strange sights, pervasive smells and sounds and curious characters to keep most novelists – and readers – going strong for three times the number of pages that there are here. . . . Arather subtler story of the hazy line between camaraderie and rivalry and of the bonds both forged and broken in extreme adversity. . . . Birch does more than simply recreate history. . . . She conjures something far stranger and less immediately graspable than a straightforward recitation of facts would allow. Jaffy's journey is suffused with yearning – to find his place in the fluid but implacable hierarchy of the seamen, to understand the mysteries of the sea and its creatures and of the unknown and unknowable places that he witnesses. . . . Rendered with exceptional control, elucidating the see-sawing bond between Jaffy and Tim and the gradual disintegration of the sailors' bodies and minds. . . . Birch has spun us a captivating yarn of high seas and even higher drama.” —The Guardian
‘An imaginative tour-de-force, encompassing the sights and smells of 19th-century London and the wild sea…. It’s gripping, superbly written and a delight” —The Times
“Riveting . . . Birch is masterful at evoking period and place . . . Jamrach’s Menagerie is itself a teeming exhibition of the beautiful and the bizarre, and its serious ideas about the relationship between mankind and the natural world are communicated with such delicacy of touch that they never slow down the propulsive telling of the story or dim the brilliance of the prose.’ —Sunday Times
“An exuberant tale of sea-faring, exotic fauna and drunken shore leave. . . . Her prose has an irresistible vigour…her words sing on the page. . . . Jamrach’s Menagerie puts its characters through the mangler and invites us to inspect the damage – and perhaps to consider that ultimately such experiences are about nothing but the acquisition of scars. The novel is a vehicle for the delivery of somatic shocks to the reader’s brain….Birch’s book also burns.” —The Financial Times
“Carol Birch’s storytelling excels. . . . as compelling as they’re convincing. . . . Birch produces a sustained feat of imagination and diligent research” —The Daily Mail
“A stirring Victorian-era tale so exquisitely written that your eye will year to linger over each sumptuous sentence even as your fingers scramble at the paper's edge to reveal what happens next. Everything you could want in a rousing adventure is here . . . Culminat[ing] in a satisfyingly redemptive ending. . . . Birch's description of the whale kill rivals any of Melville's, except in this case there's an added dose of humanity, making for a harrowing, heartbreaking passage. The visceral horror of killing another living being is depicted with piercing sadness….with my heart pounding hard and fast, I abandoned all thoughts of bedtime and kept turning pages until I'd finished the novel in one whale-sized gulp. . . . Such is the power of Birch's writing that in common with her sailors, I felt a thirst no amount of water could slake. I felt salt-crusted and festering. I felt the mingled sadness and relief, as one man's death allowed another to live. Jamrach's Menagerie is a remarkable achievement, full of poetry and poignancy, adrenalin and anguish. I hope Birch finds the wide audience she deserves. I know I'll be spreading the word.” —The Scotsman
“[H]er salty historical adventure set on the perilous ocean . . . [is] potentially a career-defining book. . . . visceral and primal. . . . and though this is very much an adventure story, the writing is thoughtful and elevating as well as effortlessly readable. . . . Birch transfers that passion for history to the page . . . [in] vivid style.” —The National
“Carol Birch may have her moment this year with Jamrach's Menagerie, a vividly written tall tale of 19th-century adventure which takes its young hero from the banks of the Thames to the South Seas—in search of a dragon” —The Guardian
"In Jamrach's Menagerie, Carol Birch quickly sucks you into a world of the senses, from the filthy streets of Victorian London to the rolling hills of the South Seas. Jaffy Brown, the gifted narrator at the center of this mythic tale, rivals David Copperfield and Ishmael of Moby-Dick with his gift for storytelling. His ‘rare old time’ becomes, in due course, a fable of friendship, and a tribute to human survival. What a beautifully written and engaging novel!" —Jay Parini, author of The Passages of H.M. and The Last Station
"Never mind not being able to put it down—there is a 100-page section in Jamrach's Menagerie in which you will not be able to breathe. Rarely have I read a book that so deftly marries high literary value with unbearable suspense." —Robert Hough, author of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, The Stowaway and The Culprits Previous Praise